Aircraft maintenance is rooted in touch labor and is likely to remain so for many years. New tools and materials sometimes make life easier for engineers, but human input still is invariably required.
Threatening to shake things up, however, are new technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence.
For example, Lufthansa Technik has developed an automated inspection and repair robot for combustor cracks, while several airlines have trialled drones for automated aircraft exterior inspections.
With the inspection drones an engineer is still needed to review the results, but fault recognition technology may soon remove the need for human eyes.
Most composite repairs are still done by hand, but automated processes will be an integral part of the aftermarket going forward—in part because of the imposition of stricter standards to inspection and repair procedures, which add to repair time if done by hand. Airbus has developed a portable robotic repair that uses water mixed with an abrasive to remove up to 500 cm2 of damaged composite material for replacement with new carbon fiber.
Other emerging technologies in the MRO space are additive manufacturing and data analysis. The former is still largely restricted to non-structural cabin items, but advances in metal printing may soon see a leap to more critical components.
Improvements in machine learning, meanwhile, are already opening the door to predictive and preventive maintenance based on aircraft and engine sensor inputs.
Many of these technologies do not threaten to replace human workers. Instead, they offer productivity gains, quicker turnarounds or more accurate inspections.
Looking ahead, a more interesting question is whether hardware or software improvements will offer the biggest gains for maintenance.
Often, of course, they will work in concert, but to find out more see the October issue of Inside MRO.