Rolls-Royce technician Rolls-Royce

New Technologies For MRO Gain Ground, But Adoption Obstacles Loom

MRO Europe panel discusses barriers to implementation of new technologies to handle aircraft data surge.

Printed headline: Go or No-Go?

Although a wave of new technologies is poised to enter maintenance hangars—from data analytics driving better efficiency to robotics automating manual processes—the road to successful adoption is far from clear-cut, according to a panel discussion on new technology adoption at MRO Europe in London on Oct. 4.

Often this is because new innovations are being acquired but not necessarily being applied effectively. “Some companies have a tendency to throw technology at a problem, thinking it’ll solve it,” said panelist Arun Chhabra, co-founder and CEO of 8tree, a specialist in the manufacture of 3D surface-inspection tools. “Adopting technology isn’t by itself the answer, and I believe that’s where the message is sometimes lost.”

Chhabra argues that from an operational perspective, companies should not have to adapt to new technologies, but instead, the technology should adapt to them. Typically, in the world of tools, he says, even highly skilled technicians have an aversion to being weighed down by taking on completely new systems and methods. “The technology should be very transparent, so it’s equivalent to picking up a hammer or a wrench and allowing an engineer to carry on their work as seamlessly as possible,” he says.

The growing influx of data into the commercial aviation industry is also making an impact across OEMs, MROs and airline maintenance divisions. Fellow panelist Mithun Kamat, associate partner for advanced industries at global consultancy McKinsey & Co., says from his experience, the appetite of companies to embrace the digital world is growing. A recurring question raised by commercial aviation companies is how they can best transform their business digitally, he says.

Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce is one of a growing number of companies collaborating with other parties on technology innovation in the commercial aerospace industry.

In addition, the increasing digital awareness of the past few years has seen a greater share of OEMs and MROs investing heavily in digital platforms. “The amount of data generated in the industry has multiplied considerably, and companies are very aware of that,” Kamat says. “Large companies such as GE set up GE Digital in 2011, while the likes of Boeing, Airbus and Lufthansa Technik have all invested in data-driven platforms to better help airlines.”

Another industry giant that has invested heavily in digital applications is Rolls-Royce. Nick Ward, head of OEM digital solutions at its Rolls-Royce Digital unit, says that not only has the British engine-maker invested significantly but it has also consciously changed its approach to how it makes digital technology investments.

However, on a wider scale, he believes that the amount of time it takes to implement new technologies can pose real obstacles for some organizations. “Any company making a large digital technology investment in the traditional sense sees firsthand what a drawn-out process it can be,” he says. “The decision-making process, which can be quite long itself, is often followed by an implementation phase lasting a number of years.”

Despite the challenges associated with implementing new technologies, all the panelists stated that, in their experience, the intent of many OEMs, MROs and airline maintenance divisions to invest in new technologies is still very strong.

But taking action is dependent on certain factors. “It all comes down to the culture and the DNA of a company,” says Chhabra, about technology investment. “Are they going to be an innovation leader like EasyJet, for instance, and embrace the new, or will they continue to be a company set in its ways and carrying on as before?”

Speaking for Rolls-Royce, Ward says the OEM falls into the former category. “There has been a complete shift at board level to recognize that digital is a part of the highest- level strategy,” he says. “This was a combination of necessity, opportunity, timing and having the right people on board.”

Collaboration across the industry will also play a key role in the future. Technology-driven partnerships have become increasingly common in the sector, notably through data and Internet of Things-focused startups working with aviation companies. Rolls-Royce, which has collaborated with Microsoft through its Azure data analysis tool since last year, is a proponent of this ethos, says Ward. “You simply can’t be in this industry and not collaborate,” he concludes. “Innovation comes from all different kinds of places.” 

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