The shape of maintenance to come

shutterstock 1
shutterstock 1

Bhoopathi Rapolu, head of analytics EMEA, Cyient, explores how the Internet of Things (IoT) is transforming aero engine reliability and maintenance.

Japanese airline, All Nippon Airlines’ (ANA) troubles with the engines on its Boeing 787 Dreamliners, reported in August last year, have shown that engine maintenance must be a prominent focus for technological development in the aerospace industry, as grounded aircraft can be hugely expensive.

Aircraft on Ground (AOG) time is a crucial factor for the airline industry – every second is vital, as any time that a plane is not in the air, it is not making money. While there is no silver bullet yet, the meteoric rise of connectivity, innovations around the Internet of Things (IoT), and the application of big data analytics, when applied to engine performance, could hold the key.

In this article, I explore how the engine performance monitoring space has evolved, looking at current solutions, imminent developments and the range of disruptive technologies throughout the supply chain that could transform the industry, including the rise of wearables.

AOG events are incredibly costly and can cause major disruption to operations, often leaving fleets grounded for significant periods of time. This not only damages the airline’s reputation, but also that of the manufacturer, to provide reliable and available fleets. It is critical for airlines and OEMs to find solutions in engine maintenance procedures to keep AOG events at bay.

Current available solutions do go some way to combatting the problem, but more needs to be done. At the moment, sensors are installed throughout the aircraft, monitoring key performance parameters such as fuel burn in the engine. When the flight has landed, this information can be downloaded and analysed by the ground staff, enabling appropriate action to be taken and get the aircraft back into service.

Only five years ago, such post-flight analysis may have taken many people a number of days to complete, whereas now there are solutions available that are generating insightful maintenance data within minutes of a plane landing. While these advancements have transformed how engine performance is assessed, there are limitations to the current approach. The next frontier lies in being able to gain this same level of insight while the plane is still airborne.

Predicting problems

When looking at solutions that could reduce or even eradicate AOG time altogether, the focus needs to shift from reaction to prediction. The prospect of maintenance crews and ground staff having a constant real-time stream of all this information, while the plane is still airborne, is very exciting.

Of course, the more data made available to ground staff, the more informed the decision-making process will be in ascertaining firstly, what the issue is, and secondly, whether it is a problem with one particular aircraft, or an entire fleet.

While current solutions only permit the airborne transfer of data for key vital parameters to maintenance crews, expanding this remit would allow them to determine the continual status and performance of individual parts and components within the engine.

This continuous visibility of performance is crucial. If, for example, one of the engine vitals fails mid-air, a standby system would kick in and run all of the necessary functions to enable it to complete its journey safely. An alert would then be sent to the ground staff, who could use the real-time information to determine the cause of the failure, before engaging the necessary personnel and sourcing the components required to get the aircraft back up and running as soon as it lands.

Getting all of this preparation done while the aircraft is still in flight would help any airline to reduce AOG incidents and maintenance costs. While there is still work to be done, this could be a reality in a couple of years’ time.

Sensors are installed throughout the aircraft, relaying important information back and forth between each other, across the plane’s systems and subsystems. These innovative new IoT solutions are leading to increased revenue for manufacturers, OEMs and even operators.

Bombardier, for example recently announced that it has signed an agreement with Pratt & Whitney to use its eFAST Health Monitoring System on the C Series aircraft. In time, this agreement will enable the manufacturer to boost its profits by receiving data on the real-time performance of its engines, so that it can adjust the way its fleets are flown and take care of potential issues before it has to ground planes.

Equally, the new generation of GEnx engines can pump 5 to 10TB of data per day. GE expects to gain up to 40% improvement in factory efficiencies by the application of IoT and big data analytics. Rolls-Royce collects similar amounts of data from 12,000 engines across the globe in its data centres.

Digital connectivity is key to speeding up maintenance tasks

Smart goggle solutions

As a by-product of the rise of IoT, we are seeing a surge in the adoption of connected wearable technologies, particularly in aerospace and engine MRO. But, while there are examples of this technology already in use, there are huge future benefits to be realised through the aerospace supply chain, and this area is yet to deliver on its true potential.

So how would this work in practice? Smart glasses worn by engineers working on engines could be used to transmit to maintenance specialists for assessment, and immediate consultancy could be given. In turn, information could be fed straight back to the engineer on the ground in real-time. The capabilities of hands-free smart glasses also allow for all this data to be recorded to assess further issues down the line.

This technology could drive huge improvements in efficiencies and safety and reduce human error. For instance, Honeywell’s technicians have been using voice recognition software when stripping down turbine engines and APUs for overhaul – leaving them able to enter engine data hands-free. It has the potential to reduce the complexity and workload for operators and as a result, uptake of this very powerful tool is only going to increase.

Changing times

For decades, the aerospace industry has had to live with AOG as an inherent problem in commercial flights but technological advances could debunk the status quo here. Soon, thousands of sensors will be embedded in each aircraft, including the engines, allowing data to be streamed down to the ground in real-time. And who knows, soon this could drive the famous black box to simply become a backup device!

With advancements in the speed and capacity of data transfer from airborne aircraft to ground staff, and a continued progression in the analysis of this information; engine manufacturers, OEMs and operators hold the key to unlocking new revenue streams and significant reductions in maintenance times. Companies throughout the supply chain must engage with this new technological wave if they are to tackle the issue of costly AOG.



Related Articles

Sealing the industry standards

Aerospace Manufacturing hears how Trelleborg Sealing Solutions has addressed the growing needs of aerospace manufacturers using a ‘modular and forward-thinking approach’ to meet the varying fire test requirements needed to comply with industry standards.
6 years ago Features

Get the balance right

According to Jeffrey Ley, P.E. manager, Fixed Wing Engineering of LORD Corporation, today’s aero engines require a more sophisticated approach beyond traditional stiff and rigid mounting options, as well as attention to the sum of all the systems.
6 years ago Features

Harder, faster, better, stronger

Neil Calder examines the latest progress on the key technology advances that could help determine the overall commercial success of future aero-engine programmes.
6 years ago Features
Most recent Articles

Precision tooling firm achieves JOSCAR qualification

B&H Precision Tooling in Stockport, part of the ASG Group, a leading aerospace manufacturing company headquartered in the UK, has announced that it has achieved the JOSCAR (Joint Supply Chain Accreditation Register) qualification for aerospace, defence and security sectors, sponsored by BAE Systems.
3 days ago News

Login / Sign up