When the public think about commercial aviation development, they envisage cleaner lines, better features to enhance their travelling experience and generally accept that their engine development may help them get to their destination more efficiently and perhaps at less cost (although today this is linked to the lower price of oil).
What is not well understood is that engine development is moving to a completely new and higher level of complexity than ever before. Boosted by the awe inspiring ambition to develop ‘big data’ analysis, engine manufacturers are changing their position regarding how they can support their customers in this new data rich world.
“Aircraft now have a tremendous amount of data,” said Jonathan Berger, vice president, ICF International, addressing delegates on the first day of the MRO Europe conference and exhibition (18- 20 October), at the RAI centre in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. “Transmittable data from a Boeing 777 has been around one megabyte; transmittable data from a Boeing 787 is around 28 megabytes.”
But what is really meant by this increasingly ubiquitous term, ‘big data’? Generally it is characterised by portions of data so large that tradition data processing techniques cannot keep up and analyse the volume that is being received. It refers to the whole processing chain from capture, to search, storing, transferring and analysing what you have on a continuous basis.
Where this becomes very relevant to the engine manufacturers and MRO providers looking after commercial aviation engine customers, is how the data can be used in predictive analysis to improve the lifetime maintenance program for each engine type, from customer to customer.
That is not to say that the data for one engine may be applicable to all customers in the same way. Aircraft that are operated by different airlines that continually take-off and land in geographically dissimilar locations, from the dry conditions of the Middle East to those flying in more temperate climates, and likely to see a change in data during peak performance.
“When we look at big data we see that the parameters we are going to pull off this engine will be significant. That will help us understand trends about how that engine is performing and it can allow us to be more predictive and plan better for maintenance,” said Kevin Kirkpatrick executive director, aftermarket operations, for Pratt & Whitney (P&W) in Singapore.
Kirkpatrick is a 15-year P&W veteran with extensive experience in the aerospace industry. He was managing director of P&W’s Eagle Services Asia (ESA) looking after customer satisfaction regarding the PRO of the company’s large commercial engines. Currently he also has oversight on the part repair and engine overhaul businesses in Shanghai and Taiwan as well as Singapore.
The monitoring of an engine’s parameters during all aspects of its performance throughout every flight is the ambition. That is where big data is involved, because there will be so much data that is coming off every engine on every flight; the challenge said Kilpatrick, is to ensure that it can be used to best effect. P&W has been analysing the benefits of big data solutions for some time and at a June 2015 briefing, P&W’s president of aftermarket, Matthew Bromberg stated: “A given Pratt & Whitney engine will experience an inflight event once in 100 years…And a delay and cancellation associated with that engine [will be] once a year. Now, there are a lot of engines out there, a lot of aircraft, so it does happen.” “But we want to capture every parameter, from every engine, every second,” he added.
In the latest engines, such as P&W’s PurePower PW1000G Geared Turbo Fan (GTF) family of jet engines, the analysis of data has led to noise reduction and lower fuel consumption by predicting the demands of the engine through flight, with the added bonus of reducing fuel consumption. Over 5,000 sensors were taking data to analyse, compared with only a fifth of these in previous engine types such as the PW6000 and PW8000.
“We have built into the product the ability to measure tons of parameters at all points of the flight in real time. It allows us to look at how parts are degrading, at oil systems and temperatures, so that we can have a better diagnostics of that engine,” explained Kirkpatrick. “We know how it is supposed to perform because we built it; so we can analyse how it is performing which allows us to make cost effective and safe decisions about that engine as it continues to fly. We will be doing that on an exponential level going forward with the new engine.”
The influence of higher technology is also having an effect during the MRO process on the ground, whether this is during the inspection process or during the actual repair of parts. Kirkpatrick gives as an example the traditional use of a component measuring machines (CMM) which measure the physical geometrical characteristics of the part either manually or by computer. “Now we can use light, blue light scanning and similar types of technology that can take an instantaneous picture of the part that can measure millions of points along that part and tell us a great deal.” Blue Light inspection is a system that can capture a 3D model of the part which allows quicker and more accurate inspections.
“If we are looking at the skills set of the future, we need people who need to know how to use the technology and learn what the machines are telling us about the process, the can learn and adapt,” said Kirkpatrick.
There will always be a requirement for mechanical engineers who are hands-on with the product. But that process is relying more on computer based technical analysis rather than physical checking. “Engineers need to be very savvy when it comes to data and the newest technology and software,” said Kirkpatrick, adding that the challenge was the way in which the technical requirements and updates were communicated out onto the shop floor. “It is taking the traditional engineer and keeping them up to speed more that was required in the past,” he said. “The focus is now on the analysis of components.” Engineers are required to be familiar with the data being made available from the engine and to be able to process that in the MRO environment in a way they haven’t done before. They are facing increasing levels of sophistication in the way that engine data is gathered and the analysis categorised and delivered.
One of the ways that P&W is working to ensure that its current employees and future hires are equipped with the right knowledge is to engage with education providers. “We are partnering with schools, so that they offer the right type of classes and that the professors are adequately trained on the types of technology that we will be using in the field when those students graduate,” Kirkpatrick said of P&W’s engagement with the local Singaporean academic institutions.
In Singapore, Kirkpatrick said that this has also been welcomed by the national government.“They are very creative and forward looking. If we are finding difficulty in locating well trained machinists for example, the government will link us with universities and those developing coursework so that we can collaborate in the development of the right coursework to students – Singapore is perhaps unique in that.”
Kirkpatrick said that P&W Singapore has invested millions of dollars to send its own employees back into eduction. “Over 200 have already earned diplomas or degrees with a further 200 going through that process. It is necessary to ensure continual learning to keep up with what is going on in technology and keeping their minds sharp so that they can continue to work with us,” he explained.