Miami heat focused on technology

It will come as no surprise to our seasoned readers to hear that the hottest topic at the MRO Americas event last week was not the 30°C temperatures outside, but the impact of new technologies on the provision of aircraft maintenance.

Big data, predictive maintenance, additive manufacturing, automated inspection technologies and mobile smart devices were all on the list of technologies that are to revolutionise our sector in the coming years.

CAVOK’s Dave Marcontell listed additive manufacturing as top of technologies that MRO should be considering investing in. “Airbus, GE and others are already introducing additively manufactured parts in to products from brackets to fuel nozzles and the aftermarket is surely to follow,” he said.

“What is holding us back from manufacturing low-usage parts like structural brackets and clips, forgings and small fittings or even interior parts like arm rests or traytables – these are not high tech items.”

Later in the week Jack Arehart, president of MRO services at Delta Air Lines, confirmed that his company had already spent “double digits of millions of dollars” on additive manufacturing technologies.

“You will see 3D printing at places like Lufthansa Technik, Delta TechOps and HAECO,” he told delegates. “We’re not going to be making HPT blades, but there are lots of other things on aircraft… this is where technology is going, but you can’t have a weak stomach or a thin wallet to do it,” he cautioned.

In the same session, Jim Sokol, president MRO services at HAECO Americas, highlighted how the MRO sector has lagged behind the manufacturing and operating sides of aerospace when it comes to adopting new technologies.

“You get more technology when you order a MacDonalds’ hamburger than you do with [maintaining] an aircraft,” he said “You’ve got an asset that’s worth a minimum of $60m and the poor guys maintaining that don’t always have all the information that should be at their fingertips, so they have to walk around the hangar looking for parts, etc.

“At HAECO we’re ensuring our guys have tablets and that the information is being pushed to them and that everything is clear and easy to understand. And we’d like to see more of that innovation. If you want to talk about cost savings technology is where it is at.”

Another technology that was mentioned repeatedly as a game changer in terms of future MRO costs was health monitoring and predictive maintenance.

Embraer COO of commercial aircraft and keynote speaker Luis Carlos Affonso, said: “I am a big fan of health monitoring. It is a system that will allow you to know exactly what failed in the aircraft without troubleshooting.

“But much more than that it is a system that will be predictive, it will tell you what will fail in the aircraft and so it is a system that will transform an unscheduled maintenance event into a scheduled one and with all the efficiencies that will go with that.”

Affonso also argued that the biggest opportunities to reap the cost benefits of such data will be through the “smart integration” of different data sources.

“It is amazing the amount of data that current generation aircraft generate and future aircraft already generate and future aircraft will generate even more. Today we are not fully exploring this data, we are not extracting the maximum value of this data,” he said.

What we need is a “system of systems” he argued. Currently, each of software systems involved in the operation of an aircraft – from engine health monitoring to stock management – are achieving efficiencies, but if all the data from the different systems were integrated smartly, Affonso believes that much bigger wins will be possible.

“If you think of an aircraft that will indicate that a component will fail in 30 days, this could automatically trigger a response from a network of systems that uses artificial intelligence to figure out the best time and best location for this aircraft to stop in a scheduled way,” he said.

“It will also know where the required parts will come from. Maybe in future the manufacture of these parts will only be launched after the aircraft signals that it will fail. It’s more of a repair system – only launching the repair and employing man hours and material when you know you need it and saving capital.”

Affonso’s future of smart integrated technologies managing maintenance would seem to be the ultimate in lean MRO processes. But I’m not sure we can crack open the champagne just yet.

At the heart of this smart future is big data and as CAVOK’s Marcontell pointed out in his talk who owns this data? Is it the operators whose aircraft generates it or those companies offering the analysis?

“Interestingly it has been the OEMs that have been the early movers on data with structured offerings that are based on customers sharing data with them, shaping the perception that data analysis is the domain of the OEM,” he said.

“This creates a potential conflict as the airlines are entrusting their parts removal history and analysis to the very same organisations that are trying to sell them replacement parts and services.”

Marcontell suggests that one way to avoid such conflict is if third-party intermediaries are employed as fair arbiters of the data.

“Whether this is an established MRO, an IT consultant, a software provider we don’t know yet, but clearly there’s opportunity out there if the airlines and OEMs can come together,” he argued.

If these arbiters can also provide the smart integration of systems that Affonso talked of, they could be on to a winner that has the potential to revolutionise our sector.

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