Lately, there has been a growing interest in the opportunity for aircraft maintenance to benefit from big data, the Internet of Things and increased connectivity. Big data offers the greatest opportunity for MRO since we stopped “overhauling” and began moving to “on-condition” maintenance in the early 1960s.
Today, technology embedded in equipment—coupled with the ability to collect, transmit and analyze it—opens vast possibilities. Through the internet, we can connect huge amounts of data and start creating coherent information. But the path to providing genuine advantages to operators—and those who will actually deliver on that promise—is not clear.
There are new players that know a lot about the power of information technology but little about airlines and maintenance. OEMs have great technical knowledge of the equipment and are extremely capable of making things that work, but they may not be as adept at keeping things functioning. Regulators are facing disruptive technology that undermines many of the traditional concepts of surveillance and analysis. Operators are intertwined with and dependent on all these folks. Meanwhile, their in-house technical capabilities may have been reduced because aircraft are safer and more reliable than ever.
The benefits of big data are limitless, but with all of these players with great capabilities in their own disciplines, we can easily be led into rabbit warrens. To realize the benefits, there needs to be a holistic approach. What the OEM perceives as useful may not at times be equally beneficial to the operator or regulator, and what is useful to the operator etc., etc. Since there is this fertile field of data and many constituents, who conducts the analysis to create the information—the OEM, the operator or regulator—or do new entities arise?
Major information technology companies are forming relationships with OEMs. This is occurring while substantial benefits from prognostics and better analytics are evolving from the OEMs, resulting in better reliability. Clearly, we will see greater marriage between OEM technology and information technology. This is already evident from the engine-makers using information to better match operational activity with wear and tear on powerplants.
On the aircraft side, we see much more activity in the areas of line maintenance and considerations of adding more sensors to aircraft.
These are all wonderful trends, but eking out the next level of improvements will likely be more difficult, and the incremental benefits may be smaller. That said, there is still much room for improvement, and eventually the payoffs for operators could be huge.
Consider this: A large legacy airline with 600 aircraft may start the day with 30-45 airliners out for scheduled maintenance and 12-15 on the ground for technical problems. There may be five spares and five more out for painting and other updates. So, about 10% of the fleet is not flying. And at airlines with less maintenance capability, the rate can be higher. Today, there are 27,000 jet aircraft in service. That means on any given day, 2,700 are not flying. Clearly this is one area where we can reduce staffing and inventory, improve efficiency and create fertile ground for the application of big data.
We hear much talk about prognostics, analytics and predictive maintenance, and the power of big data. Undoubtedly, this is the promised land, but before we get there, we must figure out how to capture maintenance data into a coherent and usable form.
The first step will be to integrate data that reside in many places: shop data, check data, line maintenance data, histories, delays, cancelations, and on and on. Most of this information is in different formats, and a good deal is still manual. Capturing all this data is challenging.
At the operator level, we are still immersed in outdated regulations, fossilized maintenance processes and individual information systems that are not conducive to taking advantage of the promises of big data.
This does not mean we should not start. Standardizing record-keeping and much of the maintenance, as well as making aircraft smarter, will help enable the promises of big data and connectivity. We must find ways to integrate maintenance data and develop analytics and prognostics based on maintenance activity and findings. This will lead to more transparent data transmittal across the industry and the ability to better package and schedule opportunistic maintenance for available downtime.
Airlines, MROs, regulators and OEMs must all work together to create more transparent and standard maintenance data. Only then will we all realize the great promises of big data.
Ray Valeika advises airlines, OEMs, private-equity firms and lessors. He was Delta Air Lines’ senior vice president for technical operations.