Interest in digital twin technology is widespread across a variety of industries, and one of the forerunners in its adoption is aerospace and defence. This particularly applies to the commercial aviation segment, where commercial aviation OEMs and MRO providers can leverage the technology to better serve customers, differentiate service offerings and increase their understanding of the assets they work with.
We are starting to see the first use cases of digital twins in action in commercial aviation. GE has already built digital twin components for its GE60 Engine family and has helped develop the world’s first digital twin for an aircraft’s landing gear. Sensors placed on typical landing gear failure points, such as hydraulic pressure and brake temperature, provide real-time data to help predict early malfunctions or diagnose the remaining lifecycle of the landing gear.
Advances in digital twin capabilities have been driven by four key technologies: IoT & Big Data – The proliferation of sensors on assets or components combined with connected systems allows organisations to gain insights into live performance; Advanced analytics – Through machine learning, data can be used to predict and simulate the future condition of assets; Computing power – Cloud-based technology vastly improves the affordability and availability of the computing power required to run large-scale digital twin models; Accessibility – Previously a digital twin may have been locked into the control room of a factory or organisation, but now data can be accessed anywhere from mobile devices.
Digital twin in name only
One definition of a digital twin is a replica of anything which gives you real-time insight into the status of an asset so organisations can better manage equipment and inform business decisions. In fact, digital twins have been around – at least in part – for a while, but were often called ‘mirrored systems’ and ‘connected factories.’
These deployments focused on physical assets, whereas digital twins aren’t limited to a 3D model of a single piece of equipment. Running a digital twin for a single asset is only the first step, but thanks to enabling technologies this can now be extrapolated to create a digital twin of a whole fleet. Take this further and a digital twin of the whole fleet can become part of a digital twin of an entire organisation, with process flows visualised and bottlenecks flagged in real-time.
No twins are identical!
Digital twins work in different situations, applications and processes depending on the context of the organisation in the supply chain. Component manufacturers, for example, are primarily focused on individual components, while engine OEMs care mainly about the engine as an entire asset. Heavy/base maintenance inspectors and regulators focus more on overall maintenance business processes and standards, and this continues through to line maintenance providers who primarily assess MRO data and the airline/operator which wants to form a digital twin of the entire aircraft.
It’s all about data
Differing priorities determine what a business application must do to manage digital twin data. Much of the data required for digital twin technology sits within supporting business applications: assets are mapped within enterprise software, including historical maintenance data, work orders and original engineering and design data.
Indeed, enterprise applications are key in constructing different kinds of digital twins. The supporting enterprise application may act as a digital twin of certain processes - whether that is the entire business or running a 3D model by extracting data from several third-party systems. Alternatively, the enterprise software could be the source of the digital twin, becoming part of a larger data ecosystem which creates a digital twin elsewhere. However, this requires flexible enterprise software designed to support digital twin initiatives and able to fulfil a variety of roles—failure to track and deliver data in the right place and time could undermine an entire digital twin operation.
There are several ways OEMs and independent MROs can leverage digital twins to benefit themselves and their customers: a) Increase aircraft safety - Using serialised asset digital twins in conjunction with real-time/near real-time monitoring and predictive analytics can help detect a defect earlier, which enhances part safety. 2) From repair shop to power-by-the-hour service provider - Digital twins can transform the maintenance models offered by OEMs and independent MROs toward lifecycle support contracts that reduce maintenance visits and costs through individual serialised inspection and service schedules. By performing asset maintenance management, OEMs and MROs allow airlines to focus on flying passengers.
They can also redefine service contract terms for the specific assets being maintained, based on their digital twin history and projected performance. 3) Extend asset life - Digital twins also enable OEMs and MROs to broaden their understanding of supported assets while in service. They can use predictive maintenance to maximise their availability and time on-wing or overlay health monitoring data with a digital asset twin to trend performance and reliability on a serial number basis. This unlocks unparalleled insight into the assets they support over time. 4) Supply chain efficiencies - Digital twin benefits spread wider than just the single component in question. By knowing in advance which component will fail, supply chain managers can have parts and material available when needed—enhancing stock control.
A case in point
Test-Fuchs, a leading manufacturer of test systems and components for aerospace and defence organisations, has successfully implemented a dedicated digital twin approach for ground support assets and test equipment.
As the asset manufacturer, Test-Fuchs assesses the engineering and design and procurement data of the asset it sells, and also has full control of the IoT-enabled test facility to provide maintenance data in real-time, before executing that maintenance in its repair shop. This gives the company a deep view of the data which builds up in an asset’s lifecycle and provides visibility across the entire digital twin landscape around every asset. This approach has helped them build an enterprise-wide picture of their business processes to put the digital twin strategy into action.
Unlock MRO potential
OEMs and MROs are ideally placed to harness the ROI and benefits of digital twin technology to optimise their service offerings and business performance. But to effectively implement a digital twin strategy requires the support of flexible enterprise software geared towards data-driven decision-making. With a strategy that is both solid and visionary, and the right software support, OEMs and independent MROs can take a slice of the growing digital twin market and better serve increasingly demanding airline customers.