Airbus Helicopters is testing innovative and disruptive technology across its maintenance operations, leading to quantifiable efficiency gains. In some cases, this can lead to time reductions for certain activities from two days to just two hours.
The company is trialing JPB Système’s proof-of-concept Smart Washer solution, which is designed to improve efficiencies within maintenance, repair and operations by enabling touchless and wireless measurement of bolt axial load. Instead of the need to manually check the tightening torque level of traditional bolts within the helicopter, Smart Washer allows engineers to directly measure bolt tension in just a few seconds with no need for intervention on the bolted assembly.
According to Georges Devilliers, senior expert for Helicopter Maintenance at Airbus Helicopters, since trialling Smart Washer over several months, the company has identified the potential for significant efficiency improvements across helicopter maintenance activities. This is underscored by a more hassle-free process on the company’s helicopters.
An example is the periodic check of the tightening torque on the main gearbox suspension bar attachment – a procedure that first requires removal of the two engines, as well as the helicopter’s interior trim, before maintenance engineers can gain access and check the bolts. Once checked, the engine needs to be re-installed and a ground-run undertaken to ensure correct installation of the engines.
“Basically, this is a heavy maintenance operation that takes around two days and requires two engineers to check about 12 bolts,” explains Devilliers. “By comparison, using Smart Washer, the same task can be performed by just one engineer in about two hours; we don’t need to physically access the bolts to perform the checks, so there’s nothing to dismantle.”
Via its tests of Smart Washer, Airbus Helicopters believes that the device could monitor more accurately the tension in the bolted assemblies.
“To check proper tension of the bolts, we currently measure the tightening torque; this is very difficult and also very imprecise,” continues Devilliers. “Difficult, because you need access to the assembly, loosen it and then re-tighten it, which can introduce room for error in so far as the dismantling of parts to access the bolts, as well as the subsequent re-assembly. The issue of imprecision arises because of the dispersion of coefficient of friction between the nut and the bolt.”
As a result, when it comes to servicing, a substantial amount of time is required to undertake such checks, which for helicopters, can sometimes represent as much as 10% of the overall scheduled maintenance time.
For Airbus Helicopters’ customers, the speed at which such checks can be performed also helps to minimize helicopter immobilization, which drives further efficiencies. In such instances, Smart Washer technology has the potential to facilitate much easier, shorter and less costly procedures.
Big Data for a wider vision
For Airbus Helicopters, the attributes of Smart Washer have more far-reaching potential. Since the device can register tension, date, location, temperature as well as other parameters this data could feasibly be used to alert customers to the need to perform other maintenance procedures – be it immediate or just according to schedule.
“We’ll continue to work closely with JPB Système as they develop Smart Washer to see how it could be integrated with Airbus Helicopters and, perhaps even within the group as a whole,” continues Devilliers. “Importantly, it addresses our fundamental challenges insofar as the need to make maintenance operations safer, easier and less time-consuming, so for us, it’s definitely a box-ticker.”
Airbus Helicopters provides efficient civil and military helicopter solutions to customers in around 150 countries. From its head office and main facility in Marignane, near Marseille, in France, the company’s operations span an array of activities, including design, assembly, training, test flights and delivery.