The Technology At The Cutting Edge Of Engine Maintenance

10/03/2017 13:37

ANA's recent troubles with Boeing's 787 Dreamliner has 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 rise of connectivity, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the application of big data analytics, when applied to engine performance, could hold the key.

Here, 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.

The landscape today - data analytics to reduce maintenance times
AOG events are 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.

The solutions available today 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 to get the aircraft back into service. 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.

The next frontier - predicting AOG events in real-time
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 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.

Maintenance through the eyes of the future technician - the rise of wearables
With the rise of the Internet of Things, we are also seeing a surge in the adoption of connected wearable technologies, particularly in aerospace and engine MRO. IDC recently announced that 102.4 million wearable devices were shipped in 2016, compared to 81.9 million in 2015. But, while there are examples of this technology already in use, there are huge future benefits to be realised through the aerospace supply chain.

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. The capabilities of hands-free smart glasses also allow for data to be recorded to assess further issues down the line.

Challenging the status quo
While AOG events have caused the aerospace industry many problems for decades, technological advances could provide a solution here. Soon, thousands of sensors will be embedded in each aircraft, allowing data to be streamed down to the ground in real-time. And who knows, does this mean the famous black box could become a simple backup device in future?!

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; engines manufacturers, OEMs and operators hold the key to unlocking significant reductions in maintenance times. Organisations throughout the supply chain must engage with this new technological wave if they are to tackle the issue of costly AOG time.