During his keynote address at the annual F8 Developers conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the audience to imagine training their smartphones’ viewfinders on a bottle of wine which would tell the phone to call up a digital information card with the wine’s vintage, its rating, tasting notes and where and how to purchase it. In this vision, the wine bottle becomes smart, giving consumers what they need to make an informed lifestyle decision.
While this may seem frivolous, the same concept can be, and is being, applied to turn airframe components into “bearers of great information” for the maintenance and inspection crews who interact with them. The term “smart asset” has many connotations, but we define it as an asset that is empowered to “tell its story” at the point of use to anyone with a smartphone-based reader and proper security credentials. A smart-asset approach is about putting extensive digital product information and life-cycle history onto components themselves. Meaningful data simply becomes part of the things’ DNA, and they can divulge it everywhere they go across their entire life cycle.
Granting intelligence to an asset at its physical layer is a novel approach, a departure from typical IoT thinking that centers upon the “I” part of the IoT. It is our belief the focus has skewed too heavily toward connecting everything with a sensor all the time, to send streaming information to a database or cloud repository or enterprise system. When this happens, the value proposition for the IoT tends to get lost amid concerns of conducting a large-scale, expensive system rollout. It can engender a “where do we start” mentality among fragmented operational teams already struggling to define time lines, returns-on-investment and ownership schemes for digital adoption. This predicament already is holding many airlines back from putting digital technologies into place, despite the vast potential they hold for value creation.
Flipping the IoT mentality over to empowering the “T” (i.e., “Things”) with data to be accessed locally is analogous to companies realizing that moving away from mainframe computing architecture to desktop PCs actually liberates their people to accomplish more. Instead of being locked into singular work streams from their “dumb green” digital terminals (the typical benefit of a point solution), employees gain from exponentially more opportunities to learn, share, manage, change and store data on the "thing.” Meanwhile, the asset (the PC workstation) improves its value by being able to communicate directly (i.e., without having to go through the mainframe or the cloud) with people, systems and other assets. Enabling this type of interaction furthers knowledge for the ecosystem and produces more powerful daily outcomes for all interested parties.
The transformation of inanimate, dumb objects into instructive coworkers happens by way of an Asset Intelligence Platform (AIP) that stores, manages and analyzes local data on the asset itself. Fine details about an asset’s build configuration, maintenance history and usage metrics no longer are housed remotely; they travel dynamically with the asset.
After each service or inspection, new maintenance information is added to its history. The asset retains a permanent, progressive record for all workers with authorized permission to access and perform local analysis. This is done via a local smartphone reader and enables faster, safer and more precise decision-making in the field. If need be, the field worker can synch the latest data record back to the enterprise systems of the airline operator, OEM, or third-party maintenance provider, providing thorough visibility into how a part is being used and its performance over time.
In short, every asset becomes a node of distributed intelligence, with data available at the point of need to guide maintenance, prompt compliance activity for life-limited parts, ensure the authenticity of parts, verify part performance and even provide maintenance instructions directly. The asset becomes so smart that the employee asks it what needs to be done!
Finally, asset intelligence translates into greater residual value when an airline or lessor decides to sell the airplane. Just as selling a car along with its full-service history can bump up the value, the aircraft’s buyer has a full confirmation of maintnenance built into the purchase price.
Today, most airframes are shipped with thousands of smart, flyable parts. The OEM has seen not only vast improvements in assembly operations, but also in providing its airline customers with a life-cycle data platform so they, too, can support downstream operations and maintenance.
Just as we saw when computing first moved to the distributed desktop model, distributed asset intelligence brings material improvements to the way employees and companies operate. Asset intelligence in aviation is ushering in the next digital age.