The question, will digital twinning play a more important role in aircraft health monitoring? has been asked with increasing regularity in the MRO industry in the past few years.
In answer to the question, Mark Martin, director of commercial aviation at the MRO and ERP software giant IFS, is one individual that thinks it will. “A digital twin refers to a virtual replica of a physical asset, like an aircraft engine, which can display how the engine is running to engineers on the ground while the aircraft is still in the air,” Martin explains.
How does this differ from traditional health monitoring? Well for particularly large and valuable assets, digital twinning applies the monitoring approach much earlier, deeper and in more detail. For example, “engineers compile thousands of data points specific to each asset during the design and manufacturing phase of the engine,” Martin says. “These are then used to build a digital model that tracks and monitors an asset in real-time, providing essential information throughout an asset’s lifecycle such as engine temperature, pressure, and airflow rate.”
By building digital twins and creating a virtual model of major aircraft systems and components, OEMs, airlines and MROs can receive early warnings and predictions of the component’s behavior, including likely failures. Engineers can even construct a plan of action by simulating what-if simulations of the asset’s behavior based on weather, performance, operations and other variables. That could keep some assets and aircraft in service longer.
The approach has been applied to, but could go well beyond, engines. Martin notes that GE helped develop the first digital twin for an airplane’s landing gear, another major asset whose performance is extremely sensitive to usage, including hard landings. “Sensors were placed on typical failure points on the asset, such as hydraulic pressure and brake temperature, to provide real-time data,” Martin says. This helped to predict early malfunctions and diagnose the remaining lifecycle of the landing gear.
Armed with this sort of data, engineers and MROs can compare data gathered by sensors on an asset to that of its digital twin, which can be put through the same paces the asset experiences as it takes off, flies through different types of weather and undergoes regular wear and tear. “If the two data sets don’t match up, then a request can be put in for the asset to enter servicing,” Martin says.
The IFS exec cites a study by the IT consultancy IDC that estimates investment in digital twinning yields a 30% improvement in cycle times of critical processes, including maintenance. “In 2018, expect to see more benefits as the technology matures.”