Justin Burns looks into how new technologies such as VR, AR and robotics are boosting the MRO logistics sector

    The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on MRO logistics and operations. However, the use of new technologies and digital solutions is helping companies overcome challenges, driving efficiency and cost savings. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are helping save money and time, improve operational efficiency and ensure social distancing of employees in the workplace, while other technologies such as robots are also bringing added value.

    Logistics efficiency gains

    MRO logistics companies have invested in VR and AR and it is helping improve the level of service to their customers, making processes more efficient and boosting performance.

    Swiss MRO logistics provider Kuehne+Nagel has implemented AR in its operations and Erik Goedhart, senior vice president, global head of aerospace & industrials, says the technology is being used in many elements across logistics processes. “We use the digital twin model for our warehouse operations to simulate the impact of various factors on our operations to learn how to better and quicker adjust our modus operandi,” Goedhart notes.

    K+N is deploying a concept called robotic process automation using AR across its MRO logistics operations and business units to automate processes which are simple but have high volumes. “These ‘bots’ can read and interpret emails and other instructions and can act accordingly, leading to time savings and utilising our staff in more value-added activities,” says Goedhart. 

    The technology is bringing a range of benefits, Goedhart notes, but the biggest is positioning in the marketplace. “Based on the technology, we can lead the supply chain transformation in close collaboration with our customers. As such, at a macro-level it will lower the cost of transport, but even more, it will significantly reduce the value of stock in the supply chain,” he says.

    German logistics giant DHL Deutsche Post Group is using VR and AR in its MRO logistics operations to ensure a more efficient and faster picking process throughout its warehouses. DHL is operating a user-friendly operation called ‘vision picking’, meaning the hands of staff are free during picking and packing and the visual support helps to locate products quickly and make them ready for dispatch. 

    AR and VR

    “On behalf of our customers, we monitor the increase in efficiency in great detail for each area of application,” a DHL spokesman says. “A decisive added value of the data glasses is the direct confirmation of a picked item in the system. 

    This is done either by voice command, a scan or by simply tapping on the glasses. “This not only saves time,
    but it also improves the accuracy of
    the feedback to the warehouse management system.”

    Overall, the picking process is accelerated and at the same time accuracy is increased while training and instruction times for new employees are also reduced significantly. The logistics company says smart glasses are only a small part of the digital strategy and used in combination with other wearables and smart devices and supported by an overall plan for digitisation of a warehouse.

    Boosting performance

    MRO operators are also utilising AR and VR to improve processes, and  the technology is giving technical staff more tools to fix problems and helping leave no holes in maintenance resources. The technologies are allowing maintenance operators to quickly execute and report repair jobs, meaning that equipment can be fixed and used much faster than would normally be possible.

    AR is being used by MRO operators for remote guidance via wearable or mobile devices, as engineer skills can be ‘augmented’, meaning more qualified technicians can provide expertise from any location, at any time. Engineer efficiency can be maximised through the use of smart glasses or a mobile device, so they can see a real-time and interactive demonstration of a repair job right in front of their eyes.

    AAR says it is piloting the use of AR to “make it more efficient and inventory smarter” at the company’s Miami facility, where it is trying out hands-free workflow and communication, using RealWear HMT-1 headsets and Librestream’s AR platform. The technology enables a master technician to show a junior technician what he or she is doing and get instructions overlaid onto the tasks, saving time spent walking between hangars answering questions.

    Another area in which AAR is using AR is to grant permissions before technicians cut and drill sheet metal. A technician can use the hands-free video, voice and photo capabilities to collaborate with a remote expert before making the cut.

    Meanwhile, MRO operator IFS is working with AR specialists XMReality on remote guidance through AR, enabling engineers involved in a repair to contact colleagues back at the base. With this remote guidance, a support technician can watch, show and guide the engineer through every step of the repair with augmented hands and tools without having to leave base.

    VR simulation is also being used to improve training as it can speed processes up, saving time and money. By utilising VR in training, MRO operators can substantially reduce the time that traditional engineer training programmes take, saving time and money. Lufthansa Technik is using VR to train employees on maintenance tasks and says the technology is “opening the way for improved work procedures, increased safety and reliability”.

    Other areas in which Lufthansa is using the technology include assembly support, such as the assembly of a CFM56-5B low-pressure turbine drive shaft, where the component is completely reproduced as a 3D model, and by using VR headsets or tablets, the quality of the work can be improved. VR is also being used to improve the process of fitting a cylindrical flange connection in engines such as on Trent 900s.

    Robotic future

    Other new technologies are also being used to enhance both MRO logistics  and operations. These include robots, which are being used to support operational processes.

    DHL is using robotics across its operations to improve productivity. These include assisted picking robots, goods-to-person robots, cleaning or wrapping robots, indoor robotic transport and inventory management robots.

    “For implementing these kinds of robots from a variety of vendors and connecting them to our multiple warehouse management system, we use standard interfaces that help reduce the integration complexity,” a DHL spokesman says.

    Meanwhile, in MRO operations, Delta Air Lines’ division Delta TechOps has partnered with Sarcos Robotics to explore new employee technology – a mobile and dexterous exoskeleton – designed to boost employees’ physical capabilities and bolster its safety.

    The Sarcos Guardian XO is a battery-powered, full-body exoskeleton. The robotic suit is designed for employees to wear and does the heavy lifting. By bearing the weight of the suit payload, the exoskeleton may enable an employee to lift up to 200 pounds repeatedly for up to eight hours at a time without strain or fatigue. Potential uses include moving maintenance components at Delta TechOps or lifting heavy machinery and parts for ground support equipment.

    Lufthansa Technik uses a stationary robot for the intricate inspection and repair of fuselage and wing structures and has put a mobile solution into operation. With the help of the new robot, mobile service teams can detect and repair large damaged areas on the wings and the fuselage of an aircraft – on site and even upside down.

    “The use of the mobile scarf joining robot not only results in cost and time savings. It also significantly increases quality, since it makes entirely new repair geometries possible,” says Henrik Schmutzler, innovation engineer for composite repairs.

    Technology is the solution

    The latest technological innovations are proving invaluable to the MRO sector, in both logistics and operations. Heathrow Airport-based MRO logistics provider B&H Worldwide says it is implementing digital solutions and technology to help it overcome challenges. “We see technology as an enabler to provide value-added services and visibility of our customers’ global supply chains,” says Seth Profit, group sales director.

    Technology is proving its worth in a crucial area in helping keep track and manage MRO stock in the supply chain worth billions of dollars. “The reposition of aircraft parts globally to service grounded aircraft is one area where we can use technology to track not only the part and shipment, but help manage the return of parts to enable the customers’ supply chains to keep flowing and not tie up valuable cash to buy additional parts,” says Profit.

    Goedhart says the stock turnover in aerospace is “unacceptably low” compared to other industries and where the “real reduction of cost in the value chain will come from”. He says, “A small example is on engine stands. It is a hidden secret in the industry that it is a challenge for customers to know where their engine stands are, whether they are serviceable or not. That leads to unnecessary transportation cost for a stand which might be available around the corner.”

    “A leasing company said to me they are buying stands like envelopes. They don’t put it on the balance sheet as they would not know where it ends up. The stands are more than $200k of value. So, technology is the solution,” Goedhart says. “We have a stand tracker and manage the batteries of the GPS on the stand as well as the calibration status. Customers can see the stands worldwide, for which engine and condition (serviceable or unserviceable). As such, the number of stands in the world can easily reduce by 15 per cent.”

    The MRO sector continues to face severe headwinds due to the impact of Covid-19 but technology is proving to be an ally and a solution; investments are paying off.