Handheld 3D scanners first gained traction within MRO for inspecting and measuring components and aircraft, but the technology has continued evolving as it has gained popularity. In addition to identifying and measuring defects and damage, MROs are now using the technology to 3D map and reverse engineer components, measure aircraft interiors for refurbishment projects and even map entire aircraft hangars.
Additive manufacturing within MRO started with the 3D printing of aircraft interior replacement parts made from plastics, but over the years the technology has begun moving toward the production of flight-critical metal parts. Additive has proven to be a useful avenue for on-demand printing of parts and tools, including the ability to improve component design by reducing weight and complexity.
Additive specialists such as Stratasys and Arevo have created technologies for 3D printing parts of any shape and size, which opens up new possibilities for the use of additive manufacturing within aerospace. In addition to printing of parts, additive technology is moving into the repair of metal parts with cold-spray techniques, which are beginning to receive certification with the aim of eventually moving into repairs for primary aircraft structures.
Early adopters of virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) within MRO have been using the technology for around a decade now for everything from remote collaboration and troubleshooting to technician training. In addition to enabling users to view data, graphics and information in real time, many VR/AR developers have amplified the technology with voice guidance and activation features.
Startups have started working on minimizing the effects of motion sickness while using VR/AR and leveraging the technology for tasks such as streamlining aircraft inspections. While VR/AR goggles and glasses were initially the most popular delivery method for the technology, some technicians have bemoaned their impracticality and opted instead for handheld delivery of the technology via smartphones and tablets.
The use of robots within MRO has grown from moving parts across shop floors and automating certain repair procedures to a wide variety of maintenance tasks. Across the MRO and supply chain environment, companies have started implementing collaborative robots—or “cobots”—to work alongside human labor to free them from repetitive or menial tasks.
OEMs such as Rolls-Royce and independent robotics specialists such as Invert Robotics have been developing unique robots to inspect aircraft and parts, such as beetle-shaped “swarm robots” deployed inside an engine or suction-based climbing robots to crawl the outside of an aircraft. Companies are now looking at additional hardware to improve robots’ usefulness, such as non-destructive testing equipment, as well as the use of robotics for improving the efficiency and safety of hazardous tasks such as applying or removing paint and coatings.
AFI KLM E&M
A wide variety of airlines and MROs have been testing the use of drones for aircraft inspections for approximately five years now and the technology shows serious promise for transforming the inspection process. Benefits of drone inspections include reducing the time and manual labor required in detecting structural damage to an aircraft while eliminating the safety concerns of technicians conducting inspections at height.
Because the technology has not yet received regulatory approval, airlines and MROs currently need to perform manual inspections alongside drones to check the accuracy of the work, but the industry is hopeful that regulatory approval will come soon. According to a recent Aviation Week poll, the majority of respondents believe 2020 is the year the technology will receive regulatory approval. In addition, some MROs such as Delta TechOps are hoping to receive approval to use drones for inspections on the airfield, where up until now tests have focused on inspections conducted inside the hangar.
Exoskeletons and Wearables
Comau/Lufthansa Technik/Lindsay Bjerregaard
Exoskeletons and wearables may look the most science fiction-esque out of many of the technologies being adopted within MRO, but their practical benefits are undeniable. Smart wearables such as the Proglove smart data glove or Rufus Cuff can be used for scanning, automated data entry and access to communications and documentation to improve efficiency and accuracy within shop and warehouse environments.
Meanwhile, exoskeletons like those offered by Sarcos Robotics or Ottobock help prevent worker injuries due to physically demanding tasks, such as repetitive motions or lifting heavy parts. The technology is likely to take off soon within MRO following Delta Air Lines’ debut of the technology at CES this year, where it showed how the Sarcos Robotics Guardian XO exoskeleton can be used to easily lift weights of up to 200 lb.
As newer-generation aircraft become more like “flying computers,” the amount of data being collected within aviation has grown massively. Big Data has shown great potential for improving maintenance operations, providing opportunities for predicting unplanned maintenance and component failure, forecasting trends to optimize operations and scheduling, and ensuring that parts, planes and people are in the right place at the right time. Potential benefits of using Big Data include fewer maintenance delays, faster turnaround times, increased aircraft availability and sizable cost savings—so it is no wonder that many MROs, aircraft and engine OEMs, and aviation-focused digital startups have released their own Big Data platforms.
The challenges the MRO industry will need to tackle as it leans more on prognostics, analytics and predictive maintenance will be successfully joining data from various silos, cleaning massive swaths of data, identifying which pieces are actionable, and settling disputes about its security and ownership.
Internet of Things
Thanks to technology such as sensors, RFID, GPS and Wi-Fi, airlines and MROs are able to glean more data and insights from their assets than ever before. Data from built-in sensors within engines, tires and other aircraft components are helping operators monitor performance and health while providing benefits for predictive maintenance, fault tracking and improving safety and efficiency. In the aircraft cabin, sensors are now being used to monitor conditions for required maintenance and passenger safety.
At MROs, Internet of Things (IoT) is being used for tracking all assets in a hangar such as components and tools to make sure items are staged in their appropriate locations and to better handle inventory management. In the future, IoT technology paired with wearables or mobile devices may even be used for monitoring technician safety by tracking how long workers are exposed to dangerous elements such as fumes and chemicals.
Within the last few years, most airlines and MROs have completed or begun initiatives to go paperless using software and mobile devices. From largescale enterprise resource planning software for scheduling and tracking operations to digital platforms for work orders, instructions and maintenance records, paperless operations are providing better productivity, accuracy and planning.
In addition to integrating Big Data from IoT technologies into software, companies have started rolling out their own unique software applications for in-house processes or bringing apps to the market, such as Magnetic MRO’s apps for logging aircraft cabin damage or Embraer’s Beacon platform for connecting mechanics, parts and tools with unscheduled maintenance opportunities.
With all of the data available from more digital MRO operations, artificial intelligence (AI) can be tapped to help companies make better predictions, decisions and efficiencies. AI is being used within MRO for predictive maintenance, optimizing maintenance scheduling by forecasting likely failures, improving repeatability and accuracy of processes such as inspections, and much more.
Within the supply chain, AI and machine learning are now being used for part tracking, forecasting and prediction. Startups like Anomalous and Whispr are now leveraging AI and natural language processing to revolutionize technicians’ daily work, enabling voice guidance and queries, digitalization of work instructions and translation of maintenance reports into data.
Blockchain first gained traction more than a decade ago with the launch of bitcoin and has been gaining steam since, with various industries looking to its adoption within the financial sector as a potential model for their own. Recent research by Accenture found that 86% of aerospace and defense companies expected to integrate blockchain technology into their corporate systems by 2021, and as of this year 61% are implementing or piloting distributed ledger technologies like blockchain. The technology creates an accurate digital record of asset transactions, providing end-to-end visibility—which could be used within aviation to track movement and history of parts and aircraft.
The technology is being investigated for use cases such as managing part production for OEMs, improving fleet management for lessors and even as a tool for 3D printing of replacement parts. However, in an industry where the ownership and privacy of data is contentious, blockchain’s success will likely rely on industry-wide partnerships and participation since its effectiveness relies on companies sharing access to proprietary data about aircraft and parts. In that vein, the MRO Blockchain Alliance was launched in 2019 and aims to release a proof of concept technology platform in Q3 of this year.
Lindsay Bjerregaard is managing editor for Aviation Week’s MRO portfolio. Her coverage focuses on MRO technology, workforce, and product and service news for AviationWeek.com, Aviation Week Marketplace and Inside MRO.