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Seven emerging technologies that will change the MRO industry

The area of aircraft maintenance has moved quite slow compared to the speed of technological developments. While new technology has been embraced to better detect damaged parts or optimise repairs processes, aircraft maintenance is still overwhelming human and dependent on touch maintenance. Five future MRO technologies being explored today, though, threaten a paradigm shift in the industry.

The MRO industry, still almost excessively dependent on human labour and roughly a decade behind industries like the pharmaceutical industry and medical devices in terms of technology adoption, may be undergoing a shakeup.

Seven new MRO technologies show promise of completely changing the way the industry operates, spurring a potential shift from human touch to human-led.

By this we mean, new hardware and software advances have opened the door to automation. This is not to say robots will be replacing aircraft mechanics, but they’ll likely be heavily aiding them. This has the potential to reduce MRO costs for aircraft operators and lessors.

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At MRO Europe, a number of experts get together every year to discuss the latest and greatest in disruptive technologies that could reshape MRO as we know it, and the challenges that innovation can bring. We've had the pleasure of joining the conversation. Here’s what we've heard.

3. technological trends

Robotics is on the rise among MROs

Robotics in MRO is a hot topic. In fact many organisations are pursuing robotics in one way or another. Robotics, therefore, is one of the fastest growing new MRO technologies to keep an eye out for.

When we think about robots, it’s often veiled in the fear that robots will make our jobs irrelevant. At the moment, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

More often than not, robots simply aid labours with routine or precision-oriented tasks. They can even be used to take on labour-intensive work that could pose a safety risk for humans.

While not appropriate for all applications, robots have a number of potential uses for achieving greater efficiencies in the MRO world. This is particularly critical now, as skilled labour is in short supply in the industry and labour costs are climbing.

»We’re looking at how robotics can help us improve efficiency. Labour costs are rising rapidly, so we basically want to see how we can automate and use robotics to improve efficiency and do better,« says Goh Poh Loh, Executive Vice President at Singapore Technologies Aerospace Ltd, of the use of robotics in his company.

We’re seeing MRO robotics applied to everything from single parts repairs and carbon fibre machining to intricate inspection tasks through miniaturization, whereby robots can be used for the inspection of components that are otherwise difficult for humans to gain access to.

There are some robotics solutions in the pipeline that are sure to be future game changers, namely Rolls-Royce’s “swarm” robots. These 1-cm-long robots would be designed to crawl through engines, capturing images and sending them back to technicians for diagnostics. They’re the first step in Roll-Royce’s ambition to develop a series of miniature robots that could remove and replace defective components.

While definitely inspiring, such a solution is far off from being realisable, and can generally be seen as the exception, rather than the norm, of how robotics is being used and talked about in MRO today. For the most part, robotics are being discussed as valuable for automation of inspection tasks and restricted to less critical aircraft systems. While new applications are certainly on the horizon, it may be a while before we see them.

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Drones in the Sky

Drones is another hot topic and it's another future MRO technology to keep an eye out for. Often spoken about in the same vein as robotics, drones are being used today for applications, such as remote plane inspection.

EasyJet and Thomas Cook Airlines, for example, make use of the RAPID (Remote Automated Plane Inspection and Dissemination) system, an autonomous drone for inspection of the exteriors of planes.

Facing similar friction as robotics in general, drones are seen as a handy tool, but there is still an overwhelming scepticism in the industry with regard to further applications. It’s widely agreed upon in the industry, however, that despite scepticism, progression seems inevitable.

The slow rate of adoption, when compared to other industries, is not exactly due to a lack of availability or opportunities – drones have become increasingly available at more affordable price tags.

Instead, the sentiment seems to be that the use of drones, or robotics for that matter – not particularly flexible or suited for process adaptation at this moment – would be a risky move, or at the very least prove inefficient, as line maintenance might need to check up on their work.

On top of this, you have the bad press that drones have been receiving because of legislative crackdowns and negative uses of the technology. So maybe robots and drones won’t be running the maintenance game anytime soon, but all evidence points to its increased prevalence.

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Additive manufacturing is gaining ground

Another widely discussed topic, being pursued already is additive manufacturing (AM), which refers to the use of computer-aided-design (CAD) software or 3D object scanners to create 3D printed goods.

As a future MRO technology, AM can enable the ability to seamlessly print replacement parts that are strong, durable, lightweight and quick as well as inexpensive to create – not to mention, they dramatically reduce inventory costs for maintenance providers.

As the name implies, AM involves adding material in layers to create an object. This process, as opposed to traditional manufacturing, which involves carving or shaping the final object, lends itself to less scrap or waste in the process.

A true revolution, additive manufacturing is being used by most of the larger MRO providers these days, but not to its fullest potential. For now, AM is being used on the less crucial components – such as cabin components – and is yet to be used on the more important structural components.

For that, OEMs are still generally relied on, although this is changing. Companies such as Lufthansa Technik and Air France Industries KLM Engineering and Maintenance are pursuing metal printing to apply AM to a wider variety of components.

With in-service feedback capabilities, AM parts can be continuously improved, as new specifications can be input with ease at the next printing. This inexpensive iteration definitely ups the likelihood that AM parts will quickly become competitive and have a high likelihood of reshaping the way aircraft components are manufactured in the long run.

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Utilising AR for MRO training

The interest in Augmented Reality (AR) as a game-changing technology hasn’t waned since it grabbed, and then lost, the public’s attention with Google Glass back in 2013. With regards to how the technology could be useful to the MRO industry, it has always been plagued by questions of whether how practical and cost-effective it would be to implement. We wrote about this in an article Augmented Reality in aviation MRO: Is it bleeding edge or leading edge?

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There seems to be one area of exception, where AR is creating real change—MRO training.

In a seminar with Wanda Manoth-Niemoller, Commercial Development Manager of KLM, she spoke about how Royal Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) and KLM have begun an MRO training course. It utilises multiple Microsoft HoloLens AR goggles to facilitate collaboration and instruction, while trainees walk around a scaled 3D model of an aircraft and its parts and systems.

“The way we did it, is that all the glasses are connected, which means that each of the students sees the same thing,” explained Manoth-Niemoller as she described a group training process. “It’s not VR, the students can see through the glasses. They can see each other. They see the same image so they can discuss things and collaborate.”

“It also changes the process of teaching. It’s not the instructor showing an image and describing it; it’s basically the students seeing the same image in a space and working together.”

As more and more digitised models of engine and aircraft parts become available, this form of training will vastly overshadow traditional forms of MRO training. The ability to simply remove and expand areas of an engine or part, and to discuss collaboratively, will significantly increase the timeframe and efficiency in which new generations of technicians and operators are on-boarded into the industry.

Blockchain in MRO: The ongoing saga

Since first taking the stage in 2008, Blockchain has captured the attention and curiosity of industries around the world. From its beginnings as a misfit cryptography system used to solve the double-spending problem with crypto-currency to the herald of a new era of secure system management, Blockchain has continuously held its position as leading technology.

During the conference, we sat in on a session with Hadi Mohamed Shakir, Chief Technology Officer at GI Aerospace. He spoke about how Blockchain can be used to improve record-keeping, digital twinning and faster lease turnover while maintaining a high standard of data privacy.

Hadi explained that this high standard of security functions by using Blockchain to create a secure “signature” and blockchain ledgers. Essentially, it would allow businesses to create preferred lists of individuals that would have access to a blockchain signature, giving them access to whatever records or data that was shared. Anyone outside of ledger would be unable to break the blockchain encryption to view the data.

Blockchain avaiation 1

We also visited a larger session with the MRO Blockchain Alliance, a newly formed partnership between Safran, SITA and Sky Republic, where we heard what they think on what Blockchain will mean for the aftermarket and part supply.

“Today, what is interesting is how Blockchain applies to the tracking and movement of parts. In terms of business value and cycle of technology, we expect that starting from next year [2020] will see the largest growth in the use of blockchain technology,” says Aurore Duhamel, Product Manager at SITA, provider of aerospace IT. “As people start to implement pilot supply chain programs, we’ll begin to understand which type of business models and areas work best for this technology.

“We expect by 2021-22, the market will be robust and mature enough for vendors to start introducing blockchain products that will bring true business value to the industry.” 

You can learn more about how utilising Blockchain to connect the many loose ends in the supply chain will inevitably prove revolutionary to aftermarket and part supply industry. We also reported earlier this year on how Deloitte and Parts Pedigree, a newly formed startup of aerospace and technology experts, took blockchain technology from its proof-of-concept stage to the operations floor

Based on the thoughts and insights from our time listening to the MRO Blockchain Alliance seminar, it appears that moving forward into 2020, many others will be racing to bring blockchain solutions to the market. 

Analytics, Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning

Another big point of conversation in MRO is data analytics, leading itself to developments in artificial intelligence as well as machine learning. While it’s a bit flashier to talk about robotics changing MRO, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that it is developments in data collection, analysis and implantation through machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).

The above-cited issue with robotics – difficulties in dealing with variable tasks – is something that we’re already beginning to see MROs overcome. This is happening through advances in machine learning, powered by mass data that machines learn to recognise patterns in – essentially turning variable into predictable.

With major increases in the availability of data, pulling from the abundance of sensors present on modern aircraft and better data routers, it can be said that we’re currently sitting with the building blocks to better processes. What is needed, though, is a way to put this data into play, to analyse it and make predictions that can effectively take the variability out of processes. This is what these advances will offer the industry.

A good example of these applications can be seen in the rise of predictive maintenance. Predictive maintenance, or the use of sensor data and maintenance logs to predict maintenance needs in advance, is already helping a number of airlines and their maintenance providers better anticipate component failure and reduce unexpected maintenance.

According to Goh Poh Loh, Executive Vice President at Singapore Technologies Aerospace Ltd, these advances may mean the ability for MRO providers to keep their competitive positions in an industry where they’re increasingly being squeezed out.

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Intelligent Machines

What happens when you start combining the above-mentioned technologies? You get intelligent machines.

Intelligent machines can be as simple as common tools made smarter by adding a Wi-Fi connection. An example of this could be the Wi-Fi connected torque wrench, that when used in conjunction with GE tested smart glasses can instruct mechanics of the correct amount of torque to apply.

Where intelligent machines really get interesting, though, is when machine learning is combined with advanced robotics. Such an example is Lufthansa Technik’s enhanced mechanical arms.

Complete with added sensors and wireless communications, these intelligent machines have the potential to bring about human-robot collaboration, by enabling robots to respond to vocal or image-based commands.

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About this blog

This blog is driven by Satair Marketing & Communication with input from both internal and external contributors.