Various IT systems and applications are being used to improve aircraft engine maintenance and overhaul. Ian Harbison spoke to three major players about their different approaches.
Firstly, we look at the views of a software supplier with Rob Mather, vice president, aerospace and defense industries at IFS. He says the engine maintenance market, for IFS, comes from two angles: the first is the engine operator/owner, the other is the engine maintainer, either the operator or an MRO. Each has very different needs. The operator/owner is looking to predict when they need to do maintenance and schedule it, hopefully extending time on wing in the process to prevent downtime and unscheduled maintenance. They also place great emphasis on back-to-birth records and configuration management. An MRO, on the other hand, providing maintenance as a service, has a simpler focus on a fast turnaround, both to satisfy the customer and to get the next revenue-earning engine in progress.
That means IFS has developed aviation maintenance products that address both of those customer needs, although, sometimes, where an airline has its own engine MRO capability, or an OEM is offering a complete support package (such as TotalCare from Rolls-Royce (which uses IFS customer software in its Blue Data Thread program)), there can be a blend of the two. The latter case, he comments, has been led by the defense side, where performance-based logistics and ‘platform as a service’ (PASS) solutions have been around for some time.
For MROs, there is an increasing interest in using IT to streamline processes in the workshop. That means orchestrating the disassembly and reassembly of the engine as well as careful scheduling of the work, assignment of technicians, timely delivery of parts, ensuring the work is done according to the contract and generating the all-important invoice. There is also a need for the customer to be able to see the status of the work at any time and to rapidly approve any work beyond the scope of the contract or estimate that needs to be done.
For digital twins, he says there are a number of factors. First is the current model of the asset, then the accumulated data against that model and the predictive model that is applied. That means the more robust a model, the more data that can be gathered. Once again, this development has been led by the military. The most recent step has been the introduction of machine learning to develop the predictive model by moving away from the analysis of historical data to look at actual trend information using conditional and contextual information.
In future, artificial intelligence will also be used in maintenance scheduling optimization to further streamline and optimise the maintenance processes, including task planning and personnel. IFS is currently using a similar method within its Field Service Management (FSM) software to intelligently deploy Field Service Representatives (FSR), including route optimization to ensure the best placed, skilled and equipped FSR is quickly on site with customers. The scheduling optimization functionality has also just been released for use in manufacturing as well.
Next is an MRO specialist. Markus Wagner, head of digital maintenance services at MTU Maintenance, based in Hannover, says his company uses a number of digital tools in its MRO processes and offers digital maintenance services, most prominently CORTEX and Engine Trend Monitoring (ETM), its proprietary software programs which are used for data processing and analysis as well as maintenance planning either for single engines or entire fleets.
CORTEX analyses technical, commercial and market data to generate tailor-made maintenance strategies for customers. Using AI optimization algorithms and taking into account a multitude of variable parameters, such as utilization, operational conditions, parts availability, cost structures and engine health, the software produces cost-optimized MRO scenarios. These results are then discussed by company experts with each customer to find the best solution.
For a given contract period and type, the tool is able to forecast material needs down to a life-limited part (LLP) level, comply with configuration requirements and can calculate spare engine requirements to cover the respective MRO intervals. Thanks to the tool, the customer then knows how much on-wing time is left and what the residual value of their assets will be at the end of the life cycle. In this way nothing is left to chance in seeking out all the possible factors that could save the engine operator maintenance costs.
ETM collects engine performance and other operational parameters recorded during the flight, processes them with MTU proprietary physics-based models and continually updates the customer on the latest condition of their assets. ETM is offered in conjunction with MRO services as well as a stand-alone service as a means to increase efficiency and lower the operating cost of an engine through advanced diagnosis, analysis and prognosis.
The system observes fuel flow, exhaust gas temperature, shaft speeds and other metrics. If there are abnormalities in the values, it sends an alert to a platform that is fully accessible via any smart device. Company engineering experts then analyze the deviations and make recommendations about a course of action, helping customers to avoid operational disruptions.
He says there is an increasing focus to move more towards data driven decision making as opposed to a hardware driven process, which has traditionally been the dominating paradigm. MTU has over 40 years of MRO experience with a wide range of engine types and has respectively large sets of data which it can feed into digital tools.
This unique position in the industry means it can strengthen the end-to-end connectivity between the customers and MTU employees, the product it delivers and MTU’s processes.
Digital twins and AI are playing into the data-driven decision-making process. He notes that ‘digital twin’ can sometimes be a buzzword, but the underlying thermodynamic model in ETM and extensive MRO records enables the creation of a detailed representation of an engine in operation that can then be used in MRO planning.
It can also help with CORTEX’s fleet management process by optimizing the algorithms the software uses to derive maintenance scenarios. This is why having all that past MRO data is so crucial because then it can contextualize what is already known about a specific engine model and compare that to a real-world engine. In an ideal case, a complete technical history can be used to develop the most precise maintenance strategy, which not only optimizes the MRO workscopes and relevant costs, but also maximizes the value and on-wing time of the engine or fleet over the entire life cycle.
Looking forward, there are two ways to improve the IT-based services of the entire MRO process — increase the efficiency of the MRO processes and business enablement. This means newer and better ways of conducting maintenance work will enable the company to offer the market exactly what it demands.
The biggest challenges to this probably lies in the harmonization of newly developed digital tools like AI-assisted MRO planning with legacy systems that have been around in the industry for decades. It is very much an on-going topic, he says.
Finally, the view from an engine OEM. Karine Lavoie-Tremblay, director, commercial engines digital transformation at Pratt & Whitney says the company, as a part of its Industry 4.0 strategy, has launched a comprehensive technology roadmap to enable business and operational performances improvements. It is currently implementing the Standard Production System (SPS) and Operational Excellence (OpX) framework as well as making good progress in key technology projects such as piece part inspection, connected factory, and industrial simulation which contribute towards its digital MRO transformation initiative. Automation is a key element of this strategy, driving efficiency on the shop floor and allowing production associates to do more fulfilling tasks.
Some examples of how Pratt & Whitney has enhanced operational effectiveness from technology insertion initiatives include:
• Engineers at the Singapore engine center, Eagle Services Asia, have developed a collaborative robot (cobot) that is assisting technicians on shop floors to help them free up time to focus on more substantive work. The integrated system of the cobot, camera system and advanced sensors was developed to capture and document hundreds of pictures at different locations on an engine when it arrives at and departs from the overhaul center. Detailed photo documentation of the engine’s external components is an integral process of the overhaul process, showing the pre- and post-overhaul condition of an engine. This system comprises a cobot mounted on an automated guided vehicle (AGV) and captures photos at programmed locations around an engine. This system replaces the routine photo-documentation task previously performed by technicians and elevates the skill set of the technicians to operate the system.
• Component Aerospace Singapore successfully deployed the first MRO application of 3D printing for aero-engine component details, whilst pioneering robotics in the MRO sector, including the development of an automated system to replace manual fixtures for tube repair.
• Pratt & Whitney Component Solutions implemented an industrial simulation pilot. The software package creates a digital twin of a factory, showing movement of product, people, process steps and inventory, and allowing for analysis of cycle times, turnaround times, cost, quality signature, and overall equipment effectiveness with the press of a button. The pilot resulted in optimized floor space and increased productivity.
Pratt & Whitney also offers EngineWise services, which includes different levels of Engine Health Management (EHM) services tailored to meet customers’ needs and provide expert analysis of engine operational data. These services deliver greater insights on maintenance planning requirements, superior reliability and controlled maintenance costs over the life of the engines.
As technology continues to develop, there have been significant investments in Advanced Diagnostics and Engine Monitoring (ADEM), part of the EHM platform, and in the ability to efficiently capture, store and analyze data from multiple sources, in order to offer state-of-the-art visualization and analytics, including full flight data capabilities.
Combining access to a more comprehensive set of data at the operational engine level, as well as the part level from our aftermarket technology insertion program, enables the company to validate design models at a much faster pace and develop advanced maintenance alerts and recommendations for customers to optimize their fleet operations.
Pratt & Whitney is running several key initiatives related to product-specific digital twins and the digital thread for the flow of connected data from enterprise resource planning (ERP), product life cycle management (PLM), and manufacturing execution system (MES) platforms. Another example is industrial simulation, as mentioned above, at Pratt & Whitney Component Solutions.
Another area of interest is smart glasses and wearable technologies which have an integrated camera, a small screen and audio that enables hands-free communication. There are an endless number of uses for smart glasses such as training, troubleshooting and equipment qualification. A first step in their use, during the pandemic, was to conduct an FAA audit on an engine at its Christchurch Engine Center in New Zealand.
Pratt & Whitney recently launched Percept, an advanced AI-based aircraft engine analysis tool. Percept is a computer vision product that operates on top of the Awiros video intelligence operating system (OS). Its cloud-based interface allows users to capture images and videos of aircraft engines on their mobile devices and receive real-time responses on parts availability. This helps a faster and cost-efficient turnaround of leased engine assets. Instead of an inspector having to examine an engine and check individual parts, Percept automates the inspection and reduces time taken by nearly 90%.
Looking further ahead on the technology front, the company has launched a Singapore technology accelerator. This center of excellence will focus on distinct strategic areas: automation, advanced inspection, connected factory and digital twin, which will enhance technology insertions, connectivity, and intelligence to benefit other company aftermarket sites around the world.
There are still some limits to be overcome in developing and deploying new technology. One particularly important area is the upskilling of the workforce to keep pace and stay relevant to the needs of the business and industry. This year, Aftermarket Operations has already hired hundreds of employees and is continuing to establish partnerships with A&P and trade schools, attend on-site career fairs and build more robust onboarding/training programs.