Technological advancements in aircraft maintenance is showing new ways of doing things. Paul E Eden looks at how these processes are making MRO procedures more efficient and cost effective.
Employing the latest technologies and software systems on the hangar floor, in their IT suites and in the classroom, MRO providers are moving into a new era of more cost effective work, completed quicker by technicians. The requirements of a safe, well-maintained aircraft are identical, whether flown by a low cost airline, flag carrier, regional or freight operator.
But given their varying business models, there are differences in how the highest standards are attained and maintained, as Jacques-Olivier Guichard, VP digital at Air France Industries KLM Engineering & Maintenance (AFI KLM E&M) notes: “In essence, the MRO services required by low cost airlines are identical to those of full-service carriers, since they operate similar aircraft types and their maintenance requirements are the same.
“But while there’s is no variation in service content, there is a difference in the scope of services required. Typically, low cost airlines outsource a larger portion of their maintenance requirements, even when their fleet size might justify other solutions.”
With this greater reliance on MROs, cost and time become driving factors. “The low cost airlines have a strong focus on cost and they are an important, fast-growing segment in the MRO market,” Guichard agrees. “That’s why it’s important that AFI KLM E&M services are cost competitive.”
Zilvinas Lapinskas, CEO at Lithuania-based FL Technics, says: “The major difference between low cost and legacy carriers is during turnaround between flights, when LCCs usually have shorter ground times, meaning reduced time for defect rectification. This, LCCs require shorter call-out reaction times for AOG [Aircraft On Ground] support.”
Cost saving through technology
New systems and techniques are increasingly finding their way into everyday business at MROs, helping drive costs down for their customers through a variety of benefits.
Guichard says MRO software, including AFI KLM E&M’s Prognos predictive maintenance solution, is an important development in this respect. “On the one hand it helps reduce MRO costs. On the other, it contributes to the heart of customer operations by improving operational integrity.
“Working alongside French software specialist Lokad, AFI KLM E&M developed Prognos as an AI-based supply chain optimisation model that is also available to customers for inventory control. It enables similar or better service levels, but with reduced inventory.”
Prognos employs data downloaded from aircraft on the ground. According to Guichard, such downloads contain considerably more information than an inflight ACAS broadcast. It also predicts parts failures between 30 and 50 flights in advance, creating the opportunity to include unscheduled work in planned maintenance activity, further reducing maintenance and operational costs.
Timur Tyncherov, planning director at S7 Technics, explains how the Russian MRO is using software to save customers time and money: “The introduction of new software allows us to predict issues more accurately as we prepare aircraft for base maintenance.
“Now we are able to ensure we have all the necessary parts and equipment available, by sourcing items in good time. It’s also made planning staff schedules easier. A combination of both factors minimises turnaround time. The same software module also allows us to provide customers with maintenance costs in real time, enabling them to control their costs.”
FL Technics proudly declares itself a lean organisation, as part of which, Lapinskas says: “We pay close attention to tools and technologies that deliver cost effectiveness to our activities and generate value for our customers. But FL Technics’ innovation strategy isn’t focused on the company becoming a technology pioneer. Rather, we monitor the market and follow the newest trends in the MRO segment.”
Developments in connectivity and IT are helping MROs extract and employ data more efficiently, but they are also about gathering traditional data faster and more accurately; replacing traditional visual inspections with sensor-equipped drones, for example.
Lapinskas continues: “Our strategic goal is to become an MRO 4.0 company, with data-driven decision making processes in place. To achieve this, we routinely analyse technologies, among them – inspection drones, 3D printing and composite repair robots. From the technologies we test and evaluate, we’ve selected only a few from which we can benefit as an MRO 4.0 company.
“To begin with, we’re collecting data from processes that still use analogue tools or machines, but IoT [internet of things] and sensors are on our priority list. We receive more and more requests from our Tier 1 customers to provide digital maintenance data, so RPC [robotic process automation] is going to be a very useful tool. In addition, to take us to MRO 4.0 we’ll need mobility solutions and to become fully paperless.”
Among other drone users, AFI KLM E&M employs aircraft that automatically fly around the fuselage under inspection, creating images which are then analysed by human experts and AI. Guichard says: “We are also looking at other types of robot inspection, capable of checking for aircraft defects in any weather, right at the airport gate. These innovations reduce aircraft turnaround time and enhance the safety of our staff.”
Meanwhile, digitisation is enabling efficiency outside airline and MRO software systems through Skeyos Marketplace – an online resource for components and MRO services. Founded by Lufthansa Technic and headquartered close to Hamburg Airport, Skeyos is equally relevant to all airlines, but low cost and regional carriers of all sizes are perhaps most likely to appreciate its cost-saving potential. Skeyos general manager, Patrick Hotz, explains.
“The name Skeyos has its roots in ancient Greek, invoking a collaboration between the modern day and the past by bringing together the ‘sky’ as the home of aviation and ‘os’, today’s shorthand for a computer or mobile operating system. Once vetted by our team, our supplier partners can immediately start selling their parts and repair services directly to Skeyos’ extensive network of airlines and traders through the marketplace platform.
“Although it increases the visibility of their specialised services to our network, the main benefit for suppliers is that Skeyos makes the request for quotation [RFQ] process obsolete, maximising efficiency. Offers made through the marketplace carry a price tag and are available for immediate purchase worldwide with universally applicable terms and conditions, avoiding the necessity of extensive negotiations.”
For its customers, including Air Greenland and South Korea’s Jeju Airlines, Skeyos therefore provides a free platform for the direct comparison and acquisition of MRO parts and services, without the need to create and administer RFQs. “We have more than 200 purchasers, of which the vast majority are airlines,” Hotz notes, “and our registered suppliers have access to a full list of registered purchasers on their marketplace dashboard.
It seems reasonable that a supplier’s inclusion on the Skeyos site represents a Lufthansa Technic endorsement, a worthy standard in itself. But how is the quality and airworthiness of the services offered ensured? “Quality and reliability come first.” Hotz says.
“Our team checks and verifies all Skeyos participants to guarantee our provision of a secure, professional and trusted network. Our contractual framework ensures and facilitates commercial transactions through the platform, while the Skeyos team monitors and mediates any transaction irregularities. To date, we’ve also personally visited every supplier on the platform.”
The cost saving and quality assurance benefits of Skeyos are readily apparent for smaller LCCs and regionals, but larger operators are likely to have their MRO and parts provision tied up in extensive contracts with regular suppliers. Yet, Hotz reckons the marketplace has benefits for small and major LCCs and regional airlines alike, because it is suitable for the purchase of parts and repair services outside existing contracts.
“It improves the efficiency of these transactions by eliminating the need to send out multiple RFQs, agree different terms and conditions, and manage separate invoices for each part or repair service bought. Few airlines have the entire scope of repair services under contract, so Skeyos is able to meet their needs as and when required. Users often access Skeyos services directly from their own systems, employing Skeyos’ API [application programme interface] integrations through, AMOS, for example.
“And for parts, Skeyos offers a wide inventory for all purchasers, regardless of their size. They can compare offers worldwide with superior transparency, negotiate on price and buy with streamlined terms and conditions. Post-sale, users may track the status of their orders, administer work scope changes and keep an oversight of all invoices in one place. The system even measures each supplier’s on-time performance and ranks search results accordingly.”
Skeyos marketplace seems almost too good to be true, then Hotz explains how it makes money and the story just gets better. “Sellers of MRO parts or repair services pay a small Skeyos transaction fee that is easily offset by the additional sales opportunities and cost-savings it provides. Purchasers use the platform entirely free.”
Training to save
New technologies are already helping MROs reduce costs at the IT level and on the hangar floor, and now there’s an increasing reliance on the latest developments in the classroom. Guichard reports: “AFI KLM E&M’s training department has been very active, developing VR and AR [augmented-reality] training techniques.
“It is now structuring these developments in cooperation with Airbus and NLR [Netherlands Aerospace Centre]. The power of these solutions is that they are certified and replace on-the-job training [OJT] that required real aircraft or aircraft simulators. VR and AR techniques drastically reduce costs and eliminate the need for students to travel to an OJT location.”
Lithuania’s FL Technics is also generating new VR training packages. Lapinskas explains: “We’ve begun implementing VR technology and created our first VR module, on opening up the Boeing 737NG thrust reverse system. We’re pleased with the results and will continue to create a full suite of VR modules covering the entirety of aviation mechanic basic training.
And this is just the beginning. We don’t believe VR training will replace all hands-on instruction, but it will enable trainees to gain experience without having to wait for a specific aircraft and job to become available. Mechanics will also practise in the VR environment before having access to a real aircraft, minimising risk and the potential for expensive mistakes. For now, VR is an experimental technique, but we’ll soon integrate it into our daily training processes for newly enrolled personnel.”
Lapinskas says VR will cut training costs and bring other benefits to customers. “Our trainees will learn faster through VR while simultaneously receiving improved training, producing highly qualified professionals who will take less time to finish projects, shortening the TAT and saving customers money.” For FL’s workforce, it also means qualifying new recruits faster, which Lapinskas believes will attract more young people into aviation.
An Airbus application in use at S7 is helping its personnel learn to diagnose common failures. Igor Ivanovskiy, director of S7’s Aviation Training Center, explains: “It brings computer simulation into the learning process. The software includes a list of typical faults and students work through, searching for failures and eliminating them, right down to the final paperwork. It saves time and means we don’t have to do the training on real aircraft.”