The Future of Aircraft Engineering
There is always talk about the shortage of pilots and the outlook of pilot shortages around the world, but what about the technician outlook? The number of new commercial airline maintenance technicians is even larger than the number of pilots needed, according to the report released by Boeing: Long-Term Market, Current Market Outlook, 2016-2035. Within the next 20 years, the airline industry will require an estimated 648,000 new maintenance technicians. This is 11,000 more than the estimated requirements for pilots over the same period. Still the focus in the media is always surrounding the scarcity of qualified pilots.
Even though there is a large number of maintenance technicians required, this is a decline in the numbers originally stated by Boeing, with an estimated decrease of 4.6% over the next 20 years. Boeing is predicting this decrease because of the reduction in overall maintenance hours required on the new 737 MAX. As new aircraft are designed and manufactured, the trend of less hours required to maintain aircraft will continue because of new technologies and methods being introduced by all the major manufactures. Then there is the introduction of augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and smart tool integration.
Boeing, one of the aviation market leaders in developing AR / VR technology practices, has been able to cut production time by 25% by means of wearable AR glasses from Glass Enterprise Edition and Skylight Enterprise Software that has been produced by Upskill. Boeing in the past had to use large sized manuals to help engineers map out the wiring configuration of each type of aircraft. Engineers would have to continuously stop and revert to the manuals, which led them to move to laptops that had the map configurations, but Boeing was still being held back from having to stop and look constantly to check diagrams and schematics on a computer screen to check and double check the correct configuration was being applied. Now with this new technology in the AR glasses by Upskill, engineers can use a viewfinder built into the glasses. The diagrams and schematics are now visible in the viewfinder and are commanded by voice, allowing the engineer to focus on the task without looking away. There is also a tracking interface and a search function giving step-by-step schematic for every wire needed for the aircraft. If there is a major issue, engineers are able to utilise remote experts that are able to view what the engineer sees through the video camera on the glasses. The remote expert is also able to give voice instruction and walk the engineer through any task. Using the AR glasses, the error level was reduced to almost zero and the production time reduced to 25%, what Boeing calls a step function change.
New technology is being used by GE Aviation, another Upskill investor. GE and Upskill have developed a torque wrench that is aided by Wi-Fi-enabled AR Smart glasses. This smart tool integration allows for the exact torque to be used to tighten every bolt to perfection. GE was looking for a solution to improve the losses of millions of dollars each year because of errors made by engineers tightening bolts too tight or too loose. Each error cost them time and money. There has been a notable difference in time saved using this technology, generally between 8-11%, but GE Aviation thinks it will achieve even better time efficiency once they have mastered the use of this new technology.
A recent survey conducted by MRO software provider IFS has determined unplanned maintenance as the most challenging problem to aircraft operators. In this survey, 150 aviation professionals were asked for their professional opinion on the biggest challenges facing their organisations. Almost 60% surveyed see aircraft availability as the most problematic issue, siting unplanned maintenance as one of the key contributors. Out of the aviation companies that took part in the survey, 77% believe AR tools will be able to reduce losses, both financial and time, that unplanned maintenance creates for their company. Remote support will be provided to technicians via AR tools, providing expertise and knowledge transfer to the technician on the ground.
Another organisation that is exploring the use of AR / VR is KLM Training Engineering & Maintenance. They recently participated in Aviation Week’s MRO Asia Pacific event in Singapore where Wanda Manoth-Niemoller, commercial development manager, KLM Training Engineering & Maintenance, explained “Virtual and augmented reality investment is a means of exploring how to improve processes.” Manoth-Niemoller went on to say “We recently did a presentation related on a change of a start engine of the GEnx engine with a pair of Microsoft Hololens smart glasses. The old fashioned method took us 45 minutes, but with the Hololens, we were able to take the image required of the engine and the task was completed in just three minutes.” With this time saving method used on only one portion of the work being done in the maintenance facility gives tremendous scope to what can be achieved when implemented to all other tasks.
All of these new technologies are in their infantile stage, but once it has matured and the engineering industry understands the full capacity of the AR/VR and smart integration tools, the industry will be able to produce and maintain all current and future aircraft at a fraction of both cost and time, so Boeing’s prediction of 648,000 engineers being required to sustain the aviation industry growth forecast will need to be revised again with another decrease in numbers. There will also be the influx of other established aviation organisations and new organisations that will explore this new technology, which will in turn develop new tools, methodologies and time saving practices that will help the industry find better economic efficiency. I guess we will have to wait to see how technology will help reduce the deficit in future engineers required and if they can attract the very best engineers into the industry.