As aircraft become increasingly advanced, researchers like those at Purdue's Hangar of the Future Research Laboratory are exploring what the future of maintenance looks like. The small group of faculty, students and research partners are examining everything from the design of aircraft hangars to automating aspects of the maintenance process.

“If we take a look at maintenance operations and some of the NextGen and some of the advancements in technology, our maintenance operation has probably not kept up scope-wise. So, what are some of the things that Hangar of the Future could take a look at?” says Tim Ropp, a Purdue professor and one of the lead faculty members for the Hangar of the Future project.

The project was officially commissioned in 2009 and is funded through Purdue and in-kind industry support from companies like Timco Aviation Services. Its stated goal is to develop “smart networks, smart tools and smart processes.” What the group seems to be after is not just physical advancements in visualized maintenance processes, RFID or maintenance task data-mining—all current projects—but, rather, to approach the hypothetical hangar of the future in a new and realistic way.

“When you take a look at the hangar of the future, don't get confined into what today's technology is or what technology is five years from now,” says Ropp. “Don't get caught in the box.” The group likes to throw out the year 2025 to get people thinking outside of their current sphere of technology.

The collective project began in the mid 2000s, when a variety of forces came together. Denver Lopp, a longtime Purdue professor and another lead faculty member on the project says maintenance outsourcing in the early 2000s presented a push for research into productivity and efficiency levels. At the time, research and development projects were already ongoing at Purdue but were largely kept isolated from each other. Around the time Lopp arrived at the university in 2005, NextGen transportation systems were gaining traction. “What the department really captured was 'What about the maintenance side of things?'” Ropp says. “What would the hangar of the future look like?”

With those questions in mind, the faculty began pulling similar projects together under the Jetson-esque moniker, “Hangar of the Future.” The objective? To develop those “smart” networks, tools and processes while, as Lopp puts it, keeping “the human in the loop.” The goal, he says, was never to fully mechanize all human elements or to remove a technician's choice through full-automation, but, rather, to automate systems in such a way that they increased a technician's “wrench time.”

Projects have ranged from mobile maintenance booth concepts, to 2-D bar-coding, to rethinking the basic layout of the hangar itself. The group is working on four key projects: a digital visual aircraft maintenance support system; electronic work instructions, including some with enhanced graphics; RFID and 2-D QR bar codes for both work instructions and inventory tracking; and data-mining and analysis into non-routine maintenance items.

The researchers have made headway on each. In the visualized support system project, they have demonstrated the ability to assign minor jobs, work the jobs and then sign off on the jobs on a network. They have also accumulated data on the usefulness of 3-D graphical instructions versus 2-D instructions and enough data-mining to begin analysis. Recently, the group has begun experimenting with RFID and nearfield communication.

With each project, the goal is to show what can be done, to prove functionality and usefulness, Ropp and Lopp say. But just because something can be done doesn't mean it should be done, Ropp cautions. Despite the group's and industry's excitement about e-enablement, total e-enablement might not be the answer, Ropp says. “Do I want to spend a lot of my engineering development and time on a simple part that may not need the level of detail and granularity of display?” he asks.

It's an important issue that has led to what Ropp calls the “Mount Everest” challenge for Hangar of the Future: how to advance technology in simple, reasonably applicable ways. High costs and large infrastructure can scare off the maintenance industry, he observes. “When they run up against something that costs so much, they'll fall back to paper because paper doesn't change,” Ropp says. “We trust that system. We've done it for years.”

Another obstacle involves data-sharing and the willingness of industry to divulge sometimes-proprietary information for the sake of standardizing maintenance tasks. Ropp says the group is seeing more willingness from industry to share data and ideas, but there is still a ways to go. Discussions have generated ideas, including using a third-party outside the industry to catalogue the information, but the question of how to keep the data secure still remains.

Even so, data-sharing could help in standardizing and eventually automating some processes, Ropp and Lopp say. Lopp has done research into further automating non-routine tasks, once reducing a 103-step process to 45 steps by incorporating data-mining functions and more efficient communications without changing the actual process. Simple concepts, such as using standardized language and high-resolution graphics during the process can help, Ropp says. The group's initial research into visual just-in-time instruction during tasks has already reduced the number of missed or out-of-sequence steps, Ropp says.

But their ideas go beyond the technology and the processes and into the design of the hangar itself. Ropp and Lopp, along with researchers Gary Eiff, Mike Lapacek, Zoe Abdul and Marifran Mattson, presented a paper at the 1997 Airframe/Engine Maintenance and Repair Conference and Exposition on considering human factors in line maintenance facility design.

A hangar's design can affect productivity and communication channels, Lopp says. When upper-level management is kept separate from workers, communication between the shop floor and the management offices may slow down. Furthermore, hangars can be updated with simple elements to help workers do their jobs better. “We still see a few technicians working with miner's lights,” Lopp says. “How can we design a hangar with more light?” It's a small detail, but it gets at what Hangar of the Future is all about: rethinking maintenance operations without the constraints of today's technology and infrastructure.

“If you can envision several pieces of the pie coming together to form a whole, it's different technologies, processes and systems,” Ropp says. “We're finding the best in class—the most efficient in class—and we're building the pieces of that pie.”