Disruptive Technologies in Military MRO

Identifying emerging disruptive trends in technology affecting MRO well in advance, will ensure that military MRO will be able to provide the required combat availability of the war fighter

Issue: 1 / 2018By Air Marshal Sukhchain Singh (Retd)Photo(s): By USAF, Indian Air Force

The aircraft Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) business is poised for stunning growth in the near term, but the aerospace companies that provide those services must navigate a rocky and often unpredictable landscape in order to thrive. Aircraft manufacturers and suppliers, meanwhile, are building more efficient, reliable and advanced commercial and military aircraft, engines and components. This new technology puts added pressure on MRO providers to be versatile and to cultivate new skills. As aircraft become more and more reliable, there is a diminishing need for technicians. But reliability is also diminishing the hands-on experience of dealing with problems. Aviation is progressing linearly, but the world is progressing exponentially. Are we accessing only the new information technologies in small chunks and trying to force-fit those pieces that mesh with our traditional framework while missing opportunities to jump to whole new levels?

Identifying emerging disruptive trends in technology affecting MRO well in advance, boldly and regardless of accepted wisdom, will ensure that military MRO will be able to provide the required combat availability of the war fighter. The following disruptive technologies need serious thought and foresight in planning on its implementation within the defence services.

Additive Manufacturing or 3D Printing

Most manufacturers in the airline industry utilise a method known as Conventional Manufacturing, which is regarded to be extremely inefficient. This method leaves large quantities of unused and unnecessary raw materials resulting in considerable wastage. 3D printing methods however, use raw materials needed only for the desired aircraft parts which save on raw materials and minimise weight of the parts. The aviation industry uses 3D printing technology because it has the capability of reducing aircraft weight, while increasing customisation and overall construction efficiency. Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) is the most common means of producing metal prints. The use of lasers to combine alloys, allows manufacturers to create functional metallic parts of high strength and durability. We may see an enduring presence of DMLS in the coming years as part of any industry that requires high durability metal parts. Traditional 3D printing (Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF), Digital Light Processing (DLP)) is not being used in the aerospace industry. The core problem that companies run into with these types, is scale. 3D printers will have to be much bigger to be able to produce every part of an airplane. So far, companies are making do with smaller components. For this reason, DMLS is more suitable than others as all it requires is a laser and platform and these can be easily adjusted for size.

A key factor for success throughout the aerospace industry is weight reduction and therefore a key indicator for products is the “buy-to-fly” ratio, the weight ratio between the raw material used for a component and the weight of the component itself. 3D printing cannot only produce lighter parts, but also significantly compress the buy-to-fly ratio as much as ten or even 15-fold, reduce material wastage (on high cost materials such as titanium) providing huge cost saving opportunities.

“Do not let yourself be forced into doing anything before you are ready” —Wilbur Wright

3D printing reduces the capital required to achieve economies of scale with enhanced flexibility and reduces the capital required to achieve scope. Considerations of minimum efficient scale, shapes the supply chain. It has the potential to reduce the capital required to reach minimum efficient scale for production, thus lowering the barriers to entry to manufacturing for a given location. Economies of scope influence how and what products can be made. The flexibility of 3D printing facilitates an increase in the variety of products a unit of capital can produce, reducing the costs associated with production changeovers and customisation and/or the overall capital required. Changing the capital-versusscale relationship, has the potential to impact the way supply chains are configured, while changing the capital-versus-scope relationship has the potential to impact product designs.

During the lifetime of an aircraft, parts may be replaced. In order to meet the demand for replacement parts, aircraft manufacturers keep an inventory of parts on hand. A client requests parts from the aircraft manufacturer when a replacement part is desired. However, receiving requested parts from the aircraft manufacturer, may take an undesirably long time for a client. Some clients may keep an inventory of parts on hand to avoid waiting for a long time. However, storing an inventory of extra parts either at an aircraft manufacturer or with a client, requires enhanced resources. There is quantifiable return on investment ROI to achieve from 3D printing by reducing material costs, decreasing labour content and increasing availability of parts at the point of use – all having a dramatic impact on the supply chain. While 3D printing is rightly being welcomed in civil aviation, it will also require key changes in ERP systems to control every element of manufacturing, maintenance and support chain processes to manage the possibility of counterfeit parts entering the support chain. Companies must take a close look at what tools and technologies are needed to better manage the supply chain, increasing control and also monitoring counterfeiting risks to take the right actions to stop them in time.

Certified materials and printers to make qualified metal parts don’t exist in today’s military MRO establishments. The unique benefits of rapid build time and unique microstructural control to avoid counterfeiting in the 3D printing processes, cannot be fully realised with the existing long airworthiness certification times. Accelerated Certification of Additively Manufactured Metals initiative must be undertaken by CEMILAC now. The goal is to develop predictive models that cover all time and length scales relevant to additive manufacturing for metal parts. Success with these efforts may well become the tipping point in the adoption of 3D printing technologies for MRO in military aviation and general aviation.

Blockchaining Technology

Blockchain is best defined as a data structure that has the ability to establish a digital archive or to record blocks of data or transactions that can be shared and easily accessed by users across networks of different computers. Blockchain can be used as a digital ledger shared by airlines, MRO teams and OEMs to record flight events, operational conditions and scheduled aircraft maintenance checks. While the technology and its applicable use is relatively new in the aviation industry, Blockchain has already grown in popularity in the financial sector and is also well known for its association with providing a way of recording bitcoin transactions. Lufthansa Industry Solutions has launched an initiative known as Blockchain for Aviation (BC4A) to evaluate how technology can be employed to increase transparency in flight maintenance which includes software developers, aircraft manufacturers, MRO service providers, logistics providers, lessors and even civil aviation regulators.

With Blockchain, information is stored in blocks, each of which contains its own history. Because every block is verified and sealed, the information contained in it cannot be changed and is saved in such a way that it is visible to all. This transparency makes it extremely difficult to corrupt and manipulate the information and is of particular benefit if different companies are working together and therefore using the same data as in aircraft maintenance. In the future, components will be registered in a Blockchain after they are manufactured together with all relevant data – for example serial codes. If a component is installed in an airplane, this information can be saved again in another Blockchain. If the part then malfunctions, maintenance technicians can use the information stored to review the exact number of flight hours and to decide whether to replace or repair the part. If it is repaired, this information can then be saved in a separate Blockchain for the component in question. This is an incredible advancement, as it means that the entire maintenance cycle of a single component can be reviewed in its entirety. It reduces the risk for MRO service providers in particular, as they can now use Blockchain technology to provide verifiable documentation at any time, about the parts they have installed. Other Blockchain application scenarios in aviation include the secure management of certification from aviation authorities and technicians’ job cards.

Blockchain can be used as a digital ledger shared by airlines, MRO teams and OEMs to record flight events, operational conditions and scheduled aircraft maintenance checks.

Even though the above use cases are promising, their implementation is still in its infancy. Several challenges need to be addressed, including the development of multiple security layers and scalability challenges in supporting millions of devices and billions of transactions. Another challenge is the design and implementation of the consensus mechanisms that are necessary to validate the various transactions in the decentralised infrastructure. More importantly, there is still a significant knowledge gap in Blockchain technologies, which makes it difficult for innovators to use it in novel ways. The potential benefits could include improved data quality, single traceable record of serial numbers, better and more accurate maintenance history, increased trust between service providers, suppliers and operators, cheaper compliance increasing airworthiness. This leads to a lighter administration, lower costs and higher system utilisation. Blockchain has quite the disruptive potential for MRO in aviation and the defence MRO establishments need to start viewing it with interest for indoctrinating the air warriors of its possibilities and plan for its disruptive acceptance for implementation.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) in E-Maintenance Management Systems (E-MMS)

The new era of Big Data and sophisticated analytics for predictive maintenance has drawn the interest of MRO because aircraft are so reliable, it is almost impossible to obtain data samples for every type of fault. The most useful approach is to learn from the mass of healthy data in order to detect abnormalities or departures from healthy patterns can be detected. The key is to offer early warning of any impending problems. The best way to do that is to quantify aircraft health, so small changes can immediately be flagged. Traditional OEM analytic tools are decades old, not designed for massive data analysis and often not flexible enough to incorporate machine learning. These are ending “slowly.”

Inventory optimisation tools will be highly useful. The solution brings a new perspective to planning, stocking and optimising inventory. It provides a new intelligent layer, wrapped around existing rules and policies, that continuously evaluates hundreds of parameters before making recommendations. And Innovative inventory tools are tightly integrated with its predictive maintenance platform. As the global fleet transitions from previous-generation to next generation aircraft, the volume and predictive power of this big data will enable operators and providers of maintenance to better forecast, plan and deploy aircraft assets. The application of AI in maintenance extends widely from the intelligent maintenance optimisation models to the more practical applications such as cost budgeting of maintenance projects and selecting optimal repair methods. How big data can be implemented for the E-MMS systems, has disrupted the traditional thought process of maintenance management. We will see newer models of the implementation which will be predictive decisions rather than historical analysis based decisions. MRO services will increasingly be based on such AI models which will reduce the downtime of aircraft and enhance the availability of the platforms and systems.

The biggest reward for investments in Big Data analytics is realised when granular events are studied and improved. This is a regulatory requirement for all aircraft operators as part of a Continuing Analysis and Surveillance Systems (CASS) plan. Detecting trends in failures, part usages, non-routine and life limits using Big Data tools, allow operators and regulators to continually refine maintenance planning operations that support cost reductions and safety of flight operations. By combining these key elements of data management, MRO operations can be greatly economised. From an operator’s perspective, access to more intelligent information means that more time is spent completing tasks than finding or processing paperwork. From a business point of view, more efficient operations translate into reduced aircraft downtime, driving higher margins.

The existing E-MMS which is being implemented in the IAF needs to be viewed in this context and plans need to be formulated for big data analytics for the huge quantities of data that it will generate. The integration of IMMOLS with E-MMS is part of the IAF project which will capture each other’s touch points in a seamless application for pan IAF weapon platforms. This integrated application needs to be continued for its full implementation; but a brainstorming be undertaken on how to tailor and use it in a big data analytical disruptive mode. Wipro, IBM, Ramco, Infosys etc are software giants who can exploit this disruptive technology to better the military MRO in improving the combat potential of our war-fighting platforms.