Predictive Maintenance: nothing broken? Fix it!

by Jan Uphues

Many repairs that are required aboard an aircraft don’t necessarily need to be completed immediately. I experienced this on my last long-distance overnight flight. My seat did not have full functionality. I was unable to recline. While unfortunate, I quickly got over it and concluded the airline would fix it in a few weeks. Then I thought back to something I heard recently while getting my feet wet in the aviation industry: the minimum equipment list (MEL). This includes the instruments, equipment and functions that may be dysfunctional as well as the time period the aircraft can operate with these defects. My thoughts on this as an aviation-newbie: Although my seat wasn’t really broken, it would have been great for the airline and the maintenance service provider if there had been some kind of warning signal that the seat needs adjustment before it actually does completely break. And a broken seat is just one example for dozens and even hundreds of single cabin items. Think of the entertainment system, the air conditioning, food ovens, toilets, trolleys, overhead storage bins and many other components. All of them can break, presenting a tough challenge for maintenance crews.

And the challenges keep on growing as the total number of aircraft in service also expands. According to the latest data compiled  by Oliver Wyman, the worldwide in-service commercial airline fleet is projected to grow from approximately 25,000 aircraft in 2017 to over 35,000 by 2027. While 10,000 aircraft are set to retire, 20,000 new aircraft will be delivered during that period. This is huge! Therefore, the maintenance crews will be kept busy.

Furthermore, this will result in a major technology shift. By 2027, 58% of the current fleet will be new-generation aircraft. Their new technologies include innovative approaches in terms of maintenance, which will help solve some big challenges. Despite the growth and the associated technical developments, all aircraft still have to be well-maintained. The streamlining of maintenance operations could drastically reduce the chance of aircraft on ground (AOG) for airlines, making every preventative maintenance effort worthwhile. This is all too necessary as the average replenishment cost for AOG situations are estimated at around $8,785.36. Avoiding this is essential for airlines as they are surely happy about every extra piece of revenue they can get to increase and maintain profitability.

Advanced IT solutions

To improve the figures, all capacities must be used more efficiently to cut costs. There’s a key success factor to achieve this: advanced IT solutions that support predictive maintenance (PrM). What’s that? And what does it ultimately have to do with my broken seat? PrM derives from the industry 4.0 trend and is about to conquer the world of aviation. The basic idea is a proactive data exchange: information on the aircraft or equipment conditions and characteristics are collected, processed and forwarded. If some value – e.g. the engine temperature – exceeds a predefined tolerance level, an appropriate signal is displayed. The maintenance staff can now fix this issue with only minor adjustments, compared to an extensive repair in case something is really broken. Broadly speaking, it’s not that the aircraft can repair itself but it can display if a component is nearing a “breaking point”.

This concept is being embraced in the airline industry: Lufthansa has developed its own solution that both presents the current situation of a fleet and predicts outages. More and more operators and maintenance providers have become interested in using data to spot potential issues before they run into actual problems. A brilliant concept, but where’s the catch about these innovative maintenance methods? They require lots of measured values and data recorded by sensors for this purpose. The biggest challenge to be faced is the huge number of detectable faults, which has increased drastically over the past 30 years. The aircraft itself provides a good example: During the 1980s, the number of potential faults on a Boeing 767 was 9,000. Today, intelligent sensors on a Boeing 787 can detect 45,000 faults. However, if this data collection and processing is done the right way, it can strongly reduce costs. Predictive maintenance can decrease total maintenance costs by 30 % and reduce AOG by up to 45 %, according to an International Journal of Applied Mathematics and Informatics study.

Using the fleet data

The potential savings noted above make clear why the optimization of maintenance planning and scheduling through the use of elaborate software tools has become highly prioritized amongst planners. In a recent AviationWeek/IATA survey, nearly 75% of respondents who were planning IT upgrades for this express purpose, cited optimization by the software as important – up from 55% in 2014. This illustrates a shift from fixed maintenance schedules to optimized maintenance strategies. That same survey also noted that 92% of respondents are actively trying to use their fleet data to improve health monitoring and predictive maintenance, repair and operations (MRO). More than half of survey respondents are working on Big Data analytics.

The figures display an overall trend toward cost saving measures by leveraging advanced IT solutions. This typically indicates large initial investments. But these will pay off: fewer AOG and lower overall maintenance costs will amount to considerable savings over the years. It would also allow for a convenient and comfortable flight for the passengers, enhancing their customer experience. No more broken seats!

Is predictive maintenance the future for the aviation business? What do you think?

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About the author

  • Jan Uphues

    Jan Uphues started working as Marketing Manager in INFORM’s Aviation Division in 2018. He particularly enjoys the “Max Thrust!” moment on the runway.

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