For many products the cost of service, maintenance, replacement parts, and upgrades over its lifecycle can be a larger proportion of lifecycle cost of ownership than the original acquisition cost. Managing these “downstream” activities efficiently is an essential element of ensuring product availability, product safety, and minimizing total cost. For the product supplier this can also be a larger profit pool than that of selling new products. In aerospace in particular, maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) is key to operational efficiency and safety, to maintaining airframe asset values, and as a profitable revenue stream both for part and service providers.
Why Does Part History Matter?
Effectively managing parts histories is a key element of improved MRO economics. This is especially true when the parts are time limited and/or rotable. But ensuring part authenticity, proper application of service bulletins, configuration compatibility, time in service limits and prior maintenance/overhaul status is important for many types of parts. Missing or incomplete history data can result in labor expense for researching history and possibly an inability to validate airworthiness. Incomplete part histories or counterfeit parts can lead to lower performance, compromised safety and lost revenue for MRO suppliers and their customers.
The most common way to track a part’s history includes identifying them using serial numbers which are then matched against records in paper or electronic logs. Many parts are not serialized making their maintenance histories perishable. Inspections to identify parts, researching parts histories, and validating the physical configuration of an airframe, engine or other system components can be time consuming and expensive. Where physical serial number tags are used, they can be replaced or supplemented with machine-readable bar codes or RFID tags. However, these tags typically contain only a limited amount of information such as part number, manufacturing date and serial number and they still require researching logs for history data. Some of this can be automated with enterprise IT systems, a large investment, and in most cases is problematic when customers use multiple third party MRO providers and for rotables which may move between customers at every service or overhaul.
“Smart” Assets Can Tell Their Own History
High memory data tags that are attached to or embedded in parts and components offer an opportunity to improve the management of part authenticity, configuration, and history in MRO processes by attaching the part history to the part itself. Distributed data enables MRO processes to function more efficiently, safer and smarter. Smartphone or tablet based readers can quickly inventory the parts on the airframe and the complete history of the part is instantly available to the technician. Once a service is complete the record can be updated, including a digital signature. The data on the reader can be easily synched with an ERP or asset management system, but it is not dependent on these systems to provide history data at the point of service – IP network connectivity not required.
These tags use passive semiconductor chips similar to traditional RFID tags but contain hundreds to thousands of times more data storage capacity. These chips do not require a power source, as they harvest power from the radio waves that interrogate them, and use this power to read and transmit back information. The harvested power is also used to write new data to the tag and in some cases to power sensors which can record and report the physical status of the part. No RF data is emitted when the tag is not being interrogated and many are designed to meet the ATA 2000 spec.
Depending on the architecture of the tag, it can be very environmentally durable—some tags can survive severe vibration, repeated exposure to intense radiation and tolerate temperature ranges of at least -80 to 200°C. Advanced data security allows data to be made selectively available—only authorized users have access to it. It is also possible to have some “public” data available only to authorized subscribers.
Airframe manufacturers including Airbus and Boeing have begun to install high memory data tags on thousands of parts on each aircraft, initially to validate configuration in their internal manufacturing processes. As the installed base of these tags grows, they are available as a distributed part history platform for airplane operators, part suppliers, and MRO service providers. It is also a relatively simple process to retrofit parts with these tags either on the aircraft or when parts are brought in for service.
The Value of Smart Assets
The improvements enabled by adding history to the parts are:
- Securely validating authenticity; reduce the risk of counterfeits Reducing the cost of inspecting to establish part repair histories and/or researching part histories
- Tracking parts through the MRO process (work completed)
- Eliminating issues of part history availability and system compatibility when maintenance is completed by third parties
- Operators can quickly validate that parts on the aircraft are within life limits and they comply with ADs
- Operators can capture information on in-service performance
Many MRO facilities are making investments in systems
to facilitate planning, supply chain management, task execution, and financial reporting and billing. Distributed parts maintenance data enhances these initiatives,and can be easily integrated into ERP, asset management, and MRO process management software. It is not dependent on these systems to deliver value to the line technicians, and so can often be implemented quickly and relatively inexpensively.