the revolution has arrived

March 12, 2019

Industry 4.0 does not stop at aircraft manufacturing – it’s coming to the MRO providers, too. The result will be increased efficiency and reduced costs. But to fully explore the potential of these new disruptive technologies, operators must provide access to all available aircraft data. By Volker K. Thomalla

Maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) is a huge factor in any aircraft’s operating costs, not just business aircraft. Operators are constantly putting pressure on manufacturers, suppliers and maintenance providers alike to increase efficiency, reduce complexity, add transparency and reduce maintenance costs.

A first step towards achieving this was the introduction of maintenance tracking services, which helped operators digitally plan and track their mandatory aircraft maintenance. Here, the biggest ‘disruption’ was that computers replaced paper – a far cry from being revolutionary.

But alas, the revolution has arrived, and its name is Industry 4.0. By connecting all data generated on board of an aircraft, the MRO industry has ready access to the most powerful diagnostic tools ever invented. With these tools comes the opportunity to fully explore the capabilities that digitalization, connectivity and Big Data offer.

Endless paperwork in today’s MRO operations produce stacks of paper that are inefficient in an environment where system health is automatically monitored, stored and reported. Today’s business aircraft are fully digitally designed and produced. NextGen MRO services will produce less paper – even if there’s doubt on whether there will ever be any truly paper free aviation related operation.

High Tech Aircraft

Today’s business aircraft feature maintenance diagnostics computers that generate data during each and every flight. The most modern systems are capable of transmitting this data on system health to a maintenance center in real-time. This will become standard on the next generation of aircraft as on-board systems become more connected and sufficient bandwidth for data transmission is made available nearly anywhere in the world.

Textron Aviation’s newest business jet, the Cessna Citation Longitude, for example, is equipped to use LinxUs and LinxUs Air. Both systems work with the Central Diagnostics Maintenance system (CDMS) of the Longitude and function as a fault-isolation system that monitors the aircraft 100% of the time. In the event of an on-board issue, actionable answers are provided in real time, resulting in faster turnarounds to get the aircraft back in the air. The difference between LinxUs and LinxUs Air is the way the system transmits the data. LinxUs reports issues upon landing with a WiFi connection, while LinxUs Air reports issues in-flight via satellite.

Other manufacturers have similar systems. Gulfstream Aerospace’s newest aircraft, the G500 and G600, feature an innovative system called PlaneConnect Health and Trend Monitoring (HTM). This system constantly collects and transmits parametric data in real-time directly to the operator and preselected reviewers, including Gulfstream’s Technical Operations (if the operator allows the data to be shared). HTM works in the background and transmits the data to aircraft support on the ground, either by wireless network or cellular data transmission. Using system features, technicians can run real-time data inquiries in flight without having to interact with the flight crew.

After each flight, HTM immediately sends time-stamped data to a website dedicated to that specific aircraft. The flight data is prioritized and organized, including such aircraft performance data as fuel consumption, pressure readings and temperatures, along with aircraft operations data. HTM’s sophisticated monitoring system speeds up diagnostic time and increases the notice given and time needed to schedule and perform maintenance. This early detection maximizes maintenance performance and reduces downtime of the aircraft.

But HTM analysis extends beyond just one flight, which is the beauty of a system using Big Data. Operators and technicians can call up and compare data from different flights stored on the aircraft’s website to establish trends and look for greater efficiencies.

Dassault Aviation of France will introduce its proprietary FalconScan system with the entry-into-service of the Falcon 6X, now under development at Dassault. FalconScan is a new onboard integrated maintenance system, which will set new standards in real-time system self-diagnosis. The system is directly connected to all aircraft systems and monitors more than 100,000 parameters (compared to “only” hundreds on previous Falcons), providing an unprecedented visibility for the on-ground maintenance team. Patented algorithms will use Big Data to enable fault detection and troubleshooting for individual aircraft, as well as trend monitoring across the Falcon 6X fleet worldwide.

Help Wanted

The technological progress being made with the digitalization of MRO services is absolutely necessary for other reasons, too. The global aircraft fleet is about to double within the next 15 years, and the number of technicians is not expected to grow quick enough to keep up. Boeing has published a technician outlook to quantify the number of maintenance personnel needed in the next 20 years. Airlines that are looking desperately for qualified maintenance technicians and engineers are attracting these employees from other industry segments, including Business Aviation.

According to Boeing’s research, the world demand for aviation technicians stands at 754,000 from today through 2037. While 622,00 technicians are needed for the airlines, Business Aviation accounts for 89,000 and the helicopter MRO industry for 43,000. Asia Pacific has the highest demand of about 257,000 maintenance personnel, while North America and Europe will need 189,000 and 132,000 respectively. Without a higher reliability of the aircraft and their systems, smarter maintenance and streamlined MRO service processes, this demand for technicians will be even higher and more difficult to satisfy.

Continued Expansion

Maintenance capacity is another issue for business aircraft operators. During the recent recession, consolidation in the MRO industry has led to an adaption of the number of facilities. Now, parallel with business aircraft flight activities rising again rises the demand for MRO services. But the consolidation phase is not yet over. Dassault Aviation and Luxaviation have announced that Dassault will buy the global maintenance activities of ExecuJet, a Luxaviation subsidiary. “The acquisition of ExecuJet’s MRO operations will strengthen Dassault Aviation’s global footprint, especially in Asia-Pacific, Oceania, Middle-East and Africa,” says Dassault Aviation Chairman and CEO Eric Trappier. “With ExecuJet, we will continue the development of our high-quality customer support network while also growing our Falcon market share.”

Gulfstream Aerospace is also expanding its MRO service capacity. Last year, the company announced expansion plans at four factory-owned and operated Customer Support locations (Appleton, Wisconsin; Savannah; Farnborough, England; and West Palm Beach, Florida) to accommodate growing demand from existing customers and the company’s expanding fleet. These MRO facilities, including hangar, offices, back shops and support space, will add more than 700,000 square feet (65,032 square meters) to Gulfstream’s maintenance footprint and provide customers with scheduled and unscheduled maintenance, line maintenance and aircraft-on-ground (AOG) support.

“We are as well-positioned as we have ever been to respond to our customers’ evolving needs and deliver on our promise of an exemplary customer ownership experience,” says Zimmerman . “With the opening of these state-of-the-art maintenance facilities in the next two years, along with beginning operations in 2019 at our world-class Van Nuys, California, MRO that we announced in 2017, we will have significantly enhanced accessibility for our customers, reinforcing our commitment to them.”

That reinforced commitment included adding more than 400 technicians and support personnel across Customer Support in 2018, the largest organization of its kind in Business Aviation with nearly 5,000 professionals.

Within just one year of its inauguration, Bombardier Aerospace has doubled its capacity at the London Biggin Hill Service Center. The Canadian manufacturer cites high demand for OEM MRO services in Europe for its decision to use an additional hangar at the airport. The building will be dedicated to heavy maintenance events, including 96-month and 120-month inspections. Following the expansion, Bombardier’s London Biggin Hill Airport facility will be able to service twice as many aircraft, including scheduled and unscheduled maintenance, modifications and avionics installations for Bombardier Learjet, Challenger and Global aircraft.

A New Wave of Heavy Maintenance Events

The huge number of business aircraft that were put into service in the pre-recession years are now approaching the timeframe for their first heavy maintenance events. This puts additional pressure on maintenance providers. But they are reacting to market needs and adding capacity accordingly. Flying Colours Corp., for example, the North American maintenance, repair, overhaul and completions company, has taken up residence in its fifth hangar at the Spirit of St. Louis airport in St. Louis, Missouri. The existing building, which is ideally located adjacent to the KSUS runway, adds a much-needed 30,000 square feet to the footprint and complements the expanded cabinetry and interiors workshop opened at the facility in January 2018.

Since taking over the hangar lease in December 2018, the local team has been outfitting the building, installing new state-of-the-art tooling and supplementary maintenance equipment, as well as revamping the office décor. The completed facility accommodates up to three parallel large-jet maintenance, avionics upgrades and interior projects at once. It is initially expecting to support heavy maintenance work, and two Bombardier Global aircraft are already in-situ for 120-month heavy maintenance checks. A recruitment drive is ramping up to source more than 50 extra maintenance engineers, technicians and administrative support personnel, bringing the St. Louis workforce to more than 200 in total.

The addition of the fifth hangar runs in parallel with the construction at Flying Colours’ Peterborough, Ontario headquarters of a fourth hangar. When completed, it will be large enough to manage completions, refurbishment, maintenance and paint work in a new dedicated paint shop for Bombardier and Gulfstream large jet types, as well as executive airliners.

“Our business continues to grow as we build our reputation for maintenance, refurbishments and completion projects on time and on budget,” says Sean Gillespie, Executive VP Flying Colours Corp. “Our customers also value the fact we can run interiors and maintenance simultaneously, thus reducing down time. We were turning work away in St. Louis so it’s great to have the hangar ready and open for operations.”

Last November, Jet Aviation opened a new widebody hangar in Basel, Switzerland. The state-of-the-art 8,700 square-meter hangar provides increased capacity for wide- and narrow-body maintenance, completion and refurbishment projects across the site. It can accommodate up to two widebody aircraft or one widebody and several smaller aircraft simultaneously. Hangar 3’s wooden arch structure supports the maximum height to ensure space for a Boeing 747 on jacks, while its extended nose-box permits two wide-body aircraft concurrently. In addition to a 5,000 square-meter tarmac extension, Hangar 3 further provides 2,000 square meters for shops and offices.

“We have a long history of handling major modifications and completions at Jet Aviation, and we continue to invest in the latest technologies that support the highest quality and safety standards for our customers,” says Jet Aviation Group President Rob Smith. “This hangar demonstrates our ongoing commitment to Basel and the region and is a tribute to our past and future success.”

Aircraft service provider Duncan Aviation joined the club of MRO companies that have expanded their facilities to meet customer demand. Duncan welcomed the first aircraft, a Bombardier Global Express XRS, into its first new maintenance hangar at the Provo Municipal Airport in Provo, Utah. The work-scope for the Global includes a 120-month airframe inspection and 10-year landing gear overhaul.

“We have been working hard to prepare and plan for our new maintenance and modifications center in Provo and we are thrilled to have the first maintenance hangar ready and open for work,” says Chad Doehring, Vice President of Operations at Provo.

Duncan Aviation completed construction and obtained necessary permits for the first hangar in early January 2018, ensuring that it would be ready for this first project. The paint facility is expected to be ready in early spring, and a second maintenance and completions hangar structure will follow. By second quarter 2020, all of the full-service back-shops and offices for the new 275,000-square-foot facility will be completed.

“Customers consistently tell us they bring their projects to Duncan Aviation because of our people,” Doehring says. “Our people have knowledge and expertise, are friendly and resourceful, and understand customer service at all levels.”

In the end, even with the highest degree of technology, maintenance, repair and overhaul of business aircraft is a people business. After all, no operator wants to hand its valuable asset to someone whom he or she doesn’t already know and trust.