The use of digital technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, AR/VR, digital twins, and 3D printing to perform maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) operations are referred to as digital MRO. These technologies increase the efficiency of operations and reduce turnaround time.
Having a digital MRO strategy is no longer peripheral to an aviation business – it is becoming central to core strategies of organizations, helping them to gain a competitive edge over others. Having the right tool to automate data ingestion, parsing it, and managing various versions of the document, amongst other tasks, can reduce indirect costs by more than 70 per cent.
Nothing is changing the MRO industry and driving the development of new solutions more than digitalization. It is the biggest game changer of this decade. With 50-times more data generated by new aircraft types, and approximately 50 per cent of airline operating costs consisting directly or indirectly of MRO services – further cost reduction can only be accomplished through MRO and operational optimization driven by digitalization.
According to a Market Research Future report, the global digital MRO market is expected to register a 12-per-cent annual growth during the forecast period 2019-2030. The report says: “Digitalization will help the industry to create a continuous stream of data flowing through different levels of the supply chain. The digital transformation in the aviation industry substantially impacts all areas of the supply chain of the industry such as air traffic management, aircraft operations, and aircraft and component manufacturing and servicing.”
No further major cost savings potentials are expected before the next aircraft generation, with new physical technologies introduced after 2030, says German MRO provider Lufthansa Technik.
AVIATAR is Lufthansa Technik’s digital MRO system. Frank Martens, Senior Director of Sales for AVIATAR and Digital Products at Lufthansa Technik AG, told AirMed&Rescue: “From the beginning, our goal has been to provide global access on the conditions and let our customers benefit from faster and more efficient troubleshooting, visualize all relevant indicators regarding aircraft status and flight schedule, and combine health data with work orders and position data – resulting in improved time management, reduced severity of incidents, and minimized ground time and costs.
“At the same time, it is key for Lufthansa Technik to allow all players in aviation and especially airlines to have access to an open, neutral and modular digital platform, which lets them stay in control of their data. In the past few years, several airlines have chosen AVIATAR for this reason. Just recently, United Airlines and Sichuan Airlines have signed up for AVIATAR, which is easy to implement, offers open interfaces for all aircraft types and is independent of airframers, OEMs and MROs.”
The evolution of health monitoring systems in HEMS
For helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) providers, health monitoring systems have historically – almost like cell phones – been very heavy pieces of equipment, which included the need for manual processes and could result in false positives. In the 80s, operators needed specialists to interpret data, which was connected to high costs and little independence. That’s where GPMS saw an opportunity to ‘democratize the tech’: they were one of the companies making dramatic changes to onboard kit, improving the sensitivity rate and reducing weight. In the end, their tech was smaller and cheaper, making it accessible to everyone. The first system was installed in a lightweight Bell 407 – earlier, these systems could only be used in heavy offshore helicopters.
Andrew Swayze, Head of Marketing & Strategy at GPMS, explained: “Nowadays, the star of the show is the algorithm, showing trending information – detecting instances far in advance, pinpoint and diagnose what’s going on – we can tell you exactly what’s going on inside.”The algorithm allows a predictive system – warning operators in time for important maintenance. This gives the maintainer an opportunity to get ahead of these issues and not have a grounded aircraft due to an unforeseen mechanical issue.
“If you’re a maintainer, you can use the system to do schedule-based maintenance and get supplemental information and identify unscheduled maintenance,” said Swayze. “At the end of every flight, we offer the maintainer an optimised tuning, which improves fuel savings and long-term health of the airframe, because it’s undergoing less strain.”
Investment in digital MRO services is needed, said Martens, because ultimately, that investment pays off several fold: “MRO services will come with reduced costs and increased efficiency as well as automated processes. Reducing fuel consumption through modifications during MRO events will further lower fuel costs and the carbon footprint. Digital partnerships with other players in the aviation industry and advanced digital engineering solutions are further making an impact.”
The system also makes selling or buying used aircraft easier – every minute the aircraft has ever flown is recorded, making it valuable information for a potential buyer. Swayze said brokers have contacted them before to say that their system was key to selling aircraft.
Digital MRO from an air medical perspective
Air ambulance service Air Alliance has an in-house European Aviation Safety Agency-approved MRO service, and additionally offers a wide range of services to other customers for a variety of aircraft. Eva Kluge, Chief Commercial Officer at Air Alliance, says digitalization means efficiency and transparency for the business. She adds that the key factor for an air ambulance service is that increasing digitalization of MRO will reduce aircraft downtime.
Kluge argued that streamlining the existing processes and switching to faster and more efficient digital processes is essential to maintain the company’s competitive ability for the next decades.
“Available digital data required for providing the maintenance services should be instantly available to the competent departments throughout the company, without the need of avoidable or necessary manual interactions,” Kluge told AirMed&Rescue. “Though technically and functionally completely different, the basic principles and EASA rules for maintaining a helicopter are the same as for a fixed-wing aircraft; therefore, there is no appreciable difference.”
Air Alliance recently decided to implement a new and more comprehensive MRO software as part of its future digitization strategy.
Looking to the future
Saravanan Rajarajan, Head of Aviation Consulting at Ramco, believes the future of digital MRO lies in 5G technologies. “We believe the confluence of AI, advanced analytics, mobile and 5G technologies will be game changers and enable MROs to achieve higher operational efficiencies. This may involve bringing together ERP systems, electronic flight bags, mobile and wearable technologies, embedded IoT and seamlessly interlinked external systems. By embracing these technological advancements, MROs are well poised to operate efficiently with the resources they have.”
Kluge added: “Streamlining the existing processes and switching to faster and more efficient digital processes is essential to maintain our competitive ability for the next decades.”
With the digital landscape changing as fast as it does, and subsequent adaption from industry, there seems to be no end to the imagination of where digital MRO could go in the future. Either way, the aviation industry seems set to become more efficient and safer as digital MRO grows.