In a guest Talking Point for MRO Network, Gerry McNulty, technology development director at UK engineering firm BHR Group, looks at how fusing operational data with numerical predictions could be key for keeping aircraft maintenance costs low.
Aircraft design, manufacture and operation has come a long away in the 113 years since the Wright Flyer took to the sky. Since then, we have progressed from piston engines to jet and gas turbine.
In fact, engine development now includes designs and tests in virtual environments employing additive manufacturing techniques and composite materials - all which helps to reduce weight and fuel burn while extending the range of an aircraft.
However, while areas like engine design and aircraft structures have seen significant technological advancements, aircraft maintenance appears to have been left slightly behind.
With maintenance having a huge impact on the safety, operational costs and profitability of a fleet, it is time for it to be brought up to speed. Thanks to the help of new technologies, aircraft maintenance is set to be given a boost that makes it just as advanced as the latest engines and aircraft structures.
Before looking at the future, it is worth understanding the current process for aircraft maintenance. This has traditionally followed a tried-and-tested approach that sees aircraft grounded at regular scheduled periods. These service periods are often decided upon by historical data and information.
However, this system has a number of limitations; in particular it does not take into account the often varied environmental conditions that aircraft operate in. Aircraft that fly in arid environments for instance are likely to see increased wear due to dust than an aircraft flying in tropical weather conditions which will suffer different challenges due to humidity.
Basing maintenance schedules on this mixed information means that aircraft can be grounded unnecessarily early. Not only does this impact on operating costs and profitability but puts great demands on having effective maintenance schedules in place and suitably trained and experienced maintenance personnel able to interpret maintenance programs and instigate the necessary repairs.
Making this all the worse is the growing engineering skills shortage, which last year saw the Royal Academy of Engineering calling for an additional one million engineers in the UK. There is also the issue of running costs, which in the competitive commercial aircraft sector is a major concern for operators.
Aircraft maintenance is already a sophisticated engineering and logistics success making use of the latest technology and expertise, yet it has the potential to do more. In particular, technologies are now allowing operators and manufactures to collect and analyze data on how a component is performing.
Combined with expertise in fluid dynamics and health monitoring, aircraft maintenance schedules can be matched to reflect the exact conditions an aircraft is flying through. In addition, collecting and analyzing this data can also be fed back to design and development teams who can include real world information into their future designs.
Having access to a database of information on how an aircraft component has performed in service does not stop at just removing unnecessary maintenance activities. Access to information on how parts are performing in real world uses can also help engineers look at how they can be redesigned to further improve their durability and long-term performance.
With efficiency and the environment being major concerns for operators and aircraft manufactures, knowing exactly how an engine or a component will perform over its life span can deliver significant improvements in these areas and further help reduce maintenance and environment costs.
Nevertheless, just as capturing and storing performance data is important; expertise in predicting the behavior of critical components especially under abnormal in-flight conditions is needed. The growing use of close-coupled multi-physics numerical models such as fluid structure interaction (FSI) is also needed.
This particular area of engineering simulation looks at how a physical body interacts with a fluid. Understanding this interaction turns data from being a collection of numbers into actionable insights that offer a new way for MRO technicians as well as designers to effectively interrogate and extract key performance information.
Engineers and designers can then take this information and use it to help develop components that work better for longer while also providing pilots with information that may help them fly more fuel-efficiently.
”Knowledge is Power”, attributed to Sir Francis Bacon in the 16th century, is as true today as then. We have in our grasp sensors and analysis methods to collect and interpret data that is essential to improve our understanding of aircraft behavior. Fusing operational data with a database of virtual world predictions offers a powerful way for determining in real-time the maintenance requirements of aircraft.
With the savings that can be delivered from a reduced maintenance cycle, aircraft operators stand to benefit; as will designers who can with this knowledge advance yet greater improvements in aircraft design, manufacture and operation.
These developments will not only help increase the time between maintenance cycles but also deliver more efficient, effective aircraft that are better for the environment and an aircraft operator’s bottom line. The future of aircraft maintenance is about to enter the 21st century.