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How Emerging Technologies Will Disrupt The Aviation Aftermarket

From additive manufacturing to cobots, exoskeletons and augmented reality, the aviation MRO industry is in for changes in how work is done.

Printed headline: Future Shocks

The application of a truly disruptive technology or business practice can transform an industry practically overnight. The jet engine shrank the world for transport purposes, while the low-cost carrier model opened up flying to the masses. Both also had knock-on effects in the aftermarket: MRO providers had to add turbofan overhaul capabilities and, later, adopt lean production techniques and new materials strategies to meet the needs of more cost-conscious airline customers.

In the aftermarket as a whole, however, change has occurred incrementally and not via any quantum leaps. Line and heavy maintenance are still almost as touch-labor reliant as they ever were, although new technologies have promoted efficiencies in many tasks.

Early examples of such improvements included nondestructive testing methods such as ultrasound and magnetic particle inspection. In the last decade, many MRO providers have invested in 3D-printing capabilities to help with prototyping, tooling and to manufacture certain cabin parts. Additive manufacturing in the form of laser cladding has also added certain repair capabilities—for turbine blades, for instance.

More recently, several companies have tested even newer technologies such as robots for automated inspection and repair and drones for airframe-exterior checks. But these techniques apply only to a small number of tasks within the maintenance spectrum and cannot be considered truly disruptive to the wider MRO sector.

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At Emirates Engineering, Safa notes that “composites have helped us do quicker repairs in situ and off-wing.” The MRO provider has been experimenting with near-infrared (NIR)-based inspection techniques for rapid inspection of composite and metallic structures without any surface treatment removal. Soon, NIR may also be used for noncontact 3D scanning, and “coupled with machine vision techniques, it has the potential to rapidly shrink general and detailed visual inspection times for the MRO operation,” he says.

Additive manufacturing (AM) is another transformative upstream technology, one that is also used internally by MROs for their own processes. Engine and aircraft OEMs are starting to print metal parts, the complexity of which are almost certain to increase as their familiarity with the technology grows. Since additive manufacturing allows the production of more complex geometries in single parts than do conventional subtractive techniques, this will lead to challenges for inspection and repair, especially where an AM part features internal channels.

“Furthermore, we may be confronted with altered failure appearances due to the slightly shifted material characteristics [of AM versus conventional parts] like reduced fatigue strengths or an anisotropic grain structure,” notes Simon Steven, a technology expert in Lufthansa Technik’s additive manufacturing center.

Optical scanning and AM-based repair technologies will be vital for MRO providers wishing to service AM parts, but other changes may also be necessary, according to Victor Ho, vice president of engineering at AAR: “It’s certainly conceivable that MRO service providers will require quick-react manufacturing cells to produce custom repairs or parts, possibly under some alternative basis of certification or authority.”

Robots, Cobots and Automation

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Although the AR market is young, it is already quite competitive, so MRO providers have a range of hardware and software solutions available, from which they must choose those that fit in best with their existing IT infrastructure. Exhibited at this year’s MRO Americas were Toshiba’s DynaEdge AR glasses, a Windows 10-based system.

David Sims, a solutions sales specialist at Dynabook Europe, says the company has several “proof of concepts within the aerospace industry that are in early stages of development.” Unsurprisingly, he is effusive about the benefits of smart glasses.

“AR solutions like smart glasses are already actively enhancing aircraft maintenance and production by enabling a range of hands-free tasks and processes,” he says.

VR goggles also hold great promise for the MRO sector, although their application will lean toward training rather than on-the-job assistance.

“VR will help us task-train more effectively, and it would come in very handy in planning modifications and first execution,“ notes Safa.

At Rolls-Royce, Williams says the company has worked with Qatar Airways to train engineers on the Trent XWB engine using VR. “We used a realistic virtual simulation to familiarize the line engineers on the engine removal and installations procedures. There is a growing trend to use virtual tools to complement or supplement physical training courses.“

Gizmos and Gorillas

For all the fancy new technologies breaking through in MRO, it is worth remembering that the biggest disruptors in the sector—the 800-lb. gorillas—are the OEMs and their focus on targeting a bigger slice of the aftermarket. Of course, there is also a big technological element to this in the big data analytics and predictive maintenance solutions they bring to bear, but those tools are also available to MRO providers of sufficient scale. More important is an OEM’s position in the supply chain and how it can use this to win aftermarket business.

“The biggest disruptor for the MRO industry is the growth of OEMs in the aftermarket, as the latter are aggressively targeting the service market with MRO services and digital products,” says Safa.

Unlike many of the technologies outlined above, OEM activities have had a significant transformative impact on the sector already, forcing MRO providers to pursue OEM partnerships and pushing the largest to develop their own analytics platforms to compete with those of the manufacturers.

Such changes might not be visible on the shop floor, but they represent a fundamental change to the business of MRO nevertheless. 

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