Compared to the rest of the industry, aircraft maintenance has moved relatively slow in terms of technological development and innovation. Although new technology is being used to detect damaged parts or optimize repair processes, the actual maintenance process is still largely human and dependent on maintenance by hand. However, there are seven new MRO technologies on the horizon that would signify a major shift in the aircraft maintenance industry. In this blog we will discuss each of them and what they mean for the future of aviation.
Robotics is one of the fastest-growing new MRO technologies. A common fear surrounding robotics is that it will take jobs away from humans. However, more often than not, robots are simply used to help workers with routine or precision-oriented tasks and take on work that could potentially pose a safety risk for humans. Though not suited to all applications, Trained robotics have a number of uses that can achieve greater efficiency for MROs. They are particularly important now as skilled labor is in short supply and labor costs are rising every year. Robotics are being applied throughout MRO applications ranging from single part repairs and carbon fiber machining to sophisticated and intricate inspection tasks.
Drones are another up and coming MRO technology to keep an eye out for. They are often grouped with other robotics, but drones are suited to many unique applications such as remote plane inspection. For example, EasyJet and Thomas Cook Airlines make use of the RAPID (Remote Automated Plane Inspection and Dissemination) system, an autonomous drone used to inspect the exterior of aircraft. Similar to robotics, drones are currently seen as a helpful tool, but there remains a general skepticism that they will have further applications in the future. Nevertheless, the growth of drones seems inevitable.
Additive manufacturing, which refers to the use of computer-aided-design (CAD) software or 3D object scanners to create 3D printed goods, is a future MRO technology that will allow the printing of strong, durable, lightweight, and inexpensive replacement parts. This will also reduce inventory costs for maintenance providers. As the name implies, additive manufacturing involves adding layers of material to create an object. Adversely, traditionally manufacturing involves carving or shaping the final object, which leads to more waste. For now, additive manufacturing is being used on less crucial parts, such as cabin components, but companies including Lufthansa Technik, Air France, and KLM Engineering and Maintenance are pursuing metal printing to apply additive manufacturing to a broader scope of components.
Though it may come as a surprise, Augmented Reality (AR) technology has proven to be a great help in MRO training. For example, the Royal Netherlands Aerospace Center and Dutch airline KLM have begun an MRO training course involving the use of AR goggles to facilitate collaboration and instruction while allowing trainees to walk around a scaled 3D model of an aircraft and all its components. As digital models of more aircraft engine and parts become available, this form of training will quickly surpass traditional forms of MRO training.
Blockchain began as a cryptography system used to solve problems faced by the crypto-currency market. Since then, many in the aerospace industry have adopted it as a means to improve record-keeping, digital twinning, and faster lease turnovers while maintaining a high standard of data privacy. The high standard of security functions provided by Blockchain allows businesses to create a secure “signature” and blockchain ledgers. This means a business could create and monitor lists of individuals that would have access to a blockchain signature, giving them access to records, data, or anything else that was shared. It would simultaneously boost security by keeping those outside of the ledger unable to break the blockchain encryption to view sensitive data.
Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning
Data analytics has helped MROs take a big step forward and helped lead to developments in both artificial intelligence and machine learning. While advancements in areas like robotics are certainly more flashy than those in data, analytics have far-reaching benefits for many MROs. For example, issues with robotics, such as difficulty in dealing with variable tasks, are being overcome through advances in machine learning powered by mass data that machines learn to find patterns in. Major increases in the availability of data, pulled from the abundance of sensors on modern aircraft and better data routers, MROs have the tools to develop better processes. A good example of these new processes can be found in the rise of predictive maintenance. Predictive maintenance refers to the use of data and maintenance logs to predict maintenance needs in advance, and is already helping many MROs, airlines, and maintenance providers predict component failure and reduce unexpected downtime.
When you combine all of the technologies and practices we have mentioned, one result is intelligent machinery. Intelligent machinery can refer to something as simple as a common tool being made smarter by the addition of a Wi-Fi connection. A good example of this is the Wi-Fi connected torque wrench, a product that, when used together with GE smart glasses, can instruct mechanics of the exact amount of torque needed. A more advanced example of intelligent machinery comes from the Lufthansa Technik enhanced mechanical arms. Through the combination of machine learning and advanced robotics, complete with sensors and wireless communications, these machines could one day bring about seamless human-robot collaborations by enabling robots to respond to vocal or image-based commands.
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