Maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) in civil aviation is a crucial requirement to ensure the safety and continuing airworthiness of an aircraft or aircraft component by international standards. Indeed, commercial aircraft MRO embraces the performance of several tasks, including maintenance, replacement, overhaul, defect rectification, inspection, repair and the embodiment of modifications.
And it’s big business. Latest findings from Straits Research on the aircraft MRO market forecasts that, overall, this will grow at a CAGR of 46.6% between 2019-2029. Some of the key factors singled out as contributing to that growth are “digitalisation, the rising demand for air travel and the upgrade of the legacy management information system (MIS)”. One technology singled out is the Internet of Things (IoT).
“Nowadays, IoT-based advancements are being tremendously used to augment aviation,” states the research company. “IoT-enabled sensors and big data are helping improve condition-based maintenance (CBM) and make it more efficient.” The data analytics being collected deliver key insights to streamline operations and reduce maintenance delays, it adds. The same insights allow for predictive maintenance techniques that recognise possible faults before indications begin to show up.
SINGLE CLOUD-BASED SOLUTION
One airline committed to the latest technology is Kalitta Air of Michigan, USA. With a very large MRO division for the overhaul of engines, airframes and landing gear, the company is now using GE Digital’s Asset Records software to help streamline and simplify aircraft records and asset documentation. The single cloud-based solution allows operators to digitise, index and archive maintenance records, connect the records and data of internal and external operations, facilitate documentation between airlines and lessors, and help match maintenance records to the relevant M&E (maintenance and engineering) system. Kalitta Air is deploying GE Digital’s Asset Transfer System to manage its external work, customised to fit the engine modules that the company overhauls.
After the 80-day revamp of an engine, the completed records have to be sent to the airline that owns the asset, so it has the records it requires for its compliance needs. “Moving to digital is key for our business, because it helps us to speed the time to audit,” says Christopher Barks, director of quality for Kalitta Air.
Observes Nate Hicks, product manager for GE Digital’s Asset Records Solution: “Some MROs provide clients with paper only – which introduces the possibility of errors where those records then have to be digitised by the client – while others have gone fully digital. At the end of the process, it all has to be digitised anyway, so that is the way the industry is heading.
“With ATS, we can also start to drive the adoption of industry standards. When you consider that you can have maybe nine [maintenance] shops all employing different forms of delivery, standardisation is much needed. Looking to the future, documents might not be used at all, but instead pure data – for instance, employing block chain credentials, rather than having manual reviews. Before we get to that stage, though, the industry has to be ready to trust that data. Right now, most operators want something physical to review. It’s a big step, but no doubt it will happen in time.”
MTU is another operator seeing a move away from traditional planning with fixed maintenance internals to more customised and individually tailored solutions. “Especially during and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 industry crisis, many airlines are still concentrating on short-term savings, with cash preservation as the main objective, while others are focusing on long-term planning,” says Katia Diebold-Widmer, head of marketing, MTU Maintenance. MRO providers must flexibly meet both of these goals to provide the best solution. “Further, we have been seeing more of a focus on on-wing/near-wing repairs, smart repairs, smaller work scopes and an increased usage of serviceable material as instruments to lower MRO costs.”
Digitalisation is another significant change. “At MTU Maintenance, we generate engine fleet management scenarios and work scopes through our proprietary intelligent maintenance costing and planning tool, CORTEX. Smart predictions and artificial intelligence enable customised, immediate and proactive MRO planning options. With CORTEX, we provide optimised support by calculating a multitude of scenarios that can be immediately and endlessly adapted to financial, technical, operational, environmental and market considerations as they change. Tweaking the variables in the planning scenarios shows customers how this would affect MRO and, in turn, significantly reduces cost. By offering such digital solutions, it is possible to increase engine reliability, optimise shop-visit staggering and ultimately arrive at the best solution for the individual customer.”
Further MRO improvements may come from service providers, she adds. “MRO providers will need to continuously innovate new service solutions to suit the evolving market environment,” Diebold-Widmer points out. “Big data is expected to transform the industry by enabling proactive analysis, as opposed to the reactive analysis seen up to this point. There is certainly a lot of potential in digitalisation, but also a lot of work and analysis that still needs to be done. Integration of multiple data sources will be key. We expect this to be a continual process over the coming years and hope to experience a move from predictive maintenance to prescriptive maintenance during this time.”
Right now, MTU is working towards full data integration throughout the entire product lifecycle, improving the predictability of engines and getting closer to those prescriptive developments.
The increasing sophistication of the technology now serving as the impetus behind MRO has seen more and more suppliers offering total solutions designed to cater for every need. Rolls-Royce, for example, which powers more than 35 types of commercial aircraft and has over 13,000 engines in service around the world, also operates a wide network of engine repair and overhaul service, most in Europe and the USA.
That it might want to hold on tightly to that aftermarket would not be surprising – which makes the company’s recent commitment to open aftermarket best practice all the more significant. It has signed a joint statement with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) that clarifies the engine manufacturer’s ongoing commitment to an open and competitive approach to its maintenance, repair and overhaul services. This includes an undertaking that Rolls-Royce will “not prevent the development of legitimate non-OEM parts or non-OEM repairs by MRO providers and independent parts manufacturers, as long as they are approved by the appropriate airworthiness regulator.”
Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general, calls the statement timely, “as the post COVID-19 restart will see an acute need to repair damaged finances while operating at the highest standards of safety and reliability,” before adding tellingly: “We look forward to other OEMs making similar commitments.”