Printed headline: Next-Gen Training
Innovative and mobile training solutions will be a key element in preparing technicians to work on newer-generation aircraft, says Boeing’s recently released “Pilot and Technician Outlook.” The report, which also foresees the need for nearly 770,000 new maintenance technicians within the next 20 years, stresses that the future workforce will be more diverse, more mobile and more suited to flexible and adaptive learning methods, implying that new technologies will be critical to engage students.
“We are seeing increasing demand for mobile solutions across the board and the ability to deliver the training or knowledge where and when needed,” explains Pete Boeskov, chief technologist for training and professional services at Boeing Global Services. “The next generation of crewmembers and technicians expect to learn and work in different ways. There’s an expectation around a digital experience where learning is available in a more continuous way—where and when needed.”
In many cases, Boeskov says this simply means pushing training through tablets or desktop simulators. Boeing integrated its portable, high-fidelity desktop simulation solution called MicroSim into maintenance training courses a couple of years ago and says it has been very effective. However, Boeskov says fully immersive solutions such as augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) are gaining traction for use cases that demand more accuracy and immersion—particularly for scenarios where practice using real aircraft and equipment is difficult or impractical.
“In the virtual world, there is much more opportunity to learn by doing. We’ve had success in fielding VR solutions for training particularly challenging tasks where a fully realistic environment is really important,” Boeskov says. The company has also created a scalable xR Learning Framework that enables it to create learning content and scenarios that can be quickly delivered through mobile or AR/VR devices. “Ultimately, we want to make it very easy for our customers to consume these new forms of learning content,” he adds.
One MRO that has fully embraced new technology for training is AFI KLM E&M. It has been using 3D functionality for training purposes since 2008 and began using VR in 2016. James Kornberg, the company’s director of innovation, says AFI KLM E&M uses VR for engine run-up and type mechanic courses as well as augmented and mixed reality training using Microsoft Hololens goggles. “This technology allows us to bring the aircraft into the classroom and show to our trainees systems they cannot even see on a real aircraft, such as the fuel, equipment cooling or air conditioning systems to better understand normal and faulty behavior,” he says. He adds that 3D and VR are particularly useful to mitigate the risk of damage to aircraft, tools and engines during practical training.
Despite their benefits, Kornberg says these emerging technologies pose some challenges as well. “The biggest challenge is with engineers who [have worked] in the aircraft environment for years and are used to the old-school methods,” he says. “The younger generation adapts more easily to new technologies.” Kornberg also believes that the technology—particularly wearable devices—needs to be improved to enhance user experience.
The perspective on wearables is similar at Lufthansa Technik (LHT), which is in the process of starting to work with AR/VR for training applications. “For AR, I think the biggest disadvantage is that you have to have a headset, which is very cumbersome and it makes you dizzy after a few hours,” says Kai-Christoph Pfingsten, head of innovation, aircraft systems at LHT.
Pfingsten says AR functionality would be better applied using mobile devices such as tablets, since “most of the time, people have preferred to have their hands and their eyes on the object they are working with,” and headsets are impractical for tasks such as working on an engine. Overall, Pfingsten says the technology needs to be intuitive and self-explanatory so it fits seamlessly into maintenance tasks.
“I think one day in the future when we all will have swapped our smart phones for smart goggles, it [will be] fine, but I think it’s maybe 20 years in the future,” he says. “I think now everybody has a smartphone, and everybody knows how to use it, so there’s no hurdle for a technician to use a tablet because he’s using it at home anyway.”
For training, Pfingsten says LHT sees high potential with VR for initial training applications such as familiarizing technicians with complex engine parts that can’t be seen from the outside. In such use cases, he says, users can easily look through objects, disassemble them and put them back together virtually.
Pfingsten says LHT can also tap other Lufthansa Group companies for inspiration on best practices with VR training. Lufthansa Aviation Training launched VR cabin crew training earlier this year, using it for things like safety awareness training. Trainees use VR glasses to simulate an aircraft cabin, where they find potentially dangerous objects such as weapons smuggled onto aircraft or other safety hazards.
Since this type of safety training is mandatory, Pfingsten says it is easier and more efficient to use VR rather than setting up real aircraft for training. He believes the same concept could be used for training about safety awareness at LHT. In an MRO context, workers could be trained to detect potential fire, safety and quality hazards in a virtual hangar or shop floor. Pfingsten says this type of virtual training could be easily standardized at different global facilities without allocating real physical assets.
Tech at Schools
While next-gen technologies like AR/VR provide potential cost savings within a corporate training context, it is a different story for schools training students for their airframe and powerplant licenses. At this year’s Aerospace Maintenance Competition in Atlanta, Georgia, Inside MRO spoke with more than 20 student competitors from schools ranging from industry powerhouses with robust maintenance programs to smaller regional technical schools competing for the first time. All of them bemoaned a lack of access to newer technologies as part of their training. During the competition, many of the students were using technologies such as VR goggles and 3D scanners for the first time. Although both students and schools would like access to these technologies for training, it ultimately boils down to the cost of the equipment.
“Some of that equipment is just beyond the means of a school to have the funds in order to purchase,” says Chuck Horning, associate professor of aviation maintenance science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “There has to be a valid reason for a school to spend money to bring that equipment in and start using it.”
That said, Horning believes AR/VR may be the most feasible option for schools in terms of adopting new technology. “I think that AR/VR is slowly going to start to work its way into the training environment, especially since the cost of some of those systems has really come down quite a bit over the last couple of years, which makes it affordable for schools to use,” he says.
Horning says Embry-Riddle’s maintenance program is working toward integrating the technology into its training. The university’s College of Aviation has spent “considerable money” on creating a VR/AR lab to develop training aids that can be used in various programs within the college, and Horning says some of the school’s faculty are also developing VR training aids.
“It shows promise as an effective tool to help get students up to or knowledgeable and working in areas with things that we maybe don’t actually have the hardware on hand, or to augment physical, hands-on training that we’re doing,” he says. “AR is definitely something industry is moving toward, so they would certainly see this in the workplace in the future, without a doubt.”
Although technologies like AR/VR receive much of the hype, something as simple as digital videos or online lessons have also shown potential as aids to learning. At GE Aviation’s Customer Technical Education Center (CTEC) in Cincinnati, instructional “Maintenance Minute” videos have been available since 2015 to offer on-demand tutorials about common engine maintenance issues for mechanics. GE says the videos, available to the wider MRO community on YouTube and via the GE and CFM Maintenance Minute app, have served as a beneficial tool to “help generate a culture of concrete learning.” GE reports that customer feedback has been so positive that some companies have incorporated the videos into their own internal training programs.
GE’s CTEC also uses 2D simulations and 3D models to supplement classroom training. The models and simulations show students engine interfaces for a better understanding of how pieces fit together and disassemble and what maintenance access will be.
Paul Bryan, lead training specialist and one of the creators of GE’s Maintenance Minute videos, finds that these training technologies have a noticeably positive effect on knowledge retention. In a GE Aviation blog post, he writes: “You can clearly see the positive effect on our students, specifically around the amount of technical information they are able to retain and eventually put into practice on the tarmac or in the hangar once they satisfy their additional steps to maintenance certification.”
At Boeing, the concept of providing more on-demand training was a key takeaway from an internal survey about the future of learning and development. “That effort generated more than 40,000 responses from employees around the globe, who told us that improving technical development programs and reskilling for jobs affected by technology disruption are of the highest importance,” explains Boeskov. In response, Boeing launched a learning portal to provide employees access to books, videos, online lessons and certification courses—as well as new virtual learning options to help them brush up on technical skills and industry trends.
“Leveraging new and emerging technology allows us to provide equal access to training for all learners,” Boeskov adds, which enables “on-demand, relevant learning versus a one-size-fits-all training approach.”