Ninety-eight million terabytes may seem like a lot of data, but that’s what the global fleet of commercial aircraft could generate per year by 2026, according to an Oliver Wyman MRO Survey.1 There’s now huge interest among big aviation players – original equipment manufacturers (OEMs); airlines; and maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) operators – to gather data and use it with predictive maintenance and health monitoring systems.
Due to the pandemic, the commercial aviation industry is going through major disruptions and airlines, OEMs, and MROs alike must adapt business models, including capitalizing on new technologies to introduce time, resource, and cost efficiencies. Digital twins, artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and other technologies are now key components of the new generation of predictive maintenance solutions that make business processes more agile and adaptive. These technologies gather key data insights and are paving the way for greater strides in predictive maintenance in the coming years.
The Blue Data Thread
Predictive maintenance isn’t new – in the 1990s, the IFS Maintenix team worked with the U.S. Navy to crunch through engine health monitoring data to model and predict engine component failure. Today, Rolls-Royce is using AI forecasting, supported by IFS, to help airline customers automatically update predicted maintenance deadlines for every life-limited component inside their engines – a key part of the Rolls-Royce Blue Data Thread strategy, a digital information thread connecting every Rolls-Royce powered aircraft, airline operation, maintenance shop, and factory. This is all part of the Rolls-Royce vision for the IntelligentEngine.
“The IntelligentEngine is a form of cyber-physical service where the physical engine, the services surrounding that digital engine, and the Rolls-Royce digital capability are indivisible,” explains Nick Ward, vice president of digital systems, Rolls-Royce “The IntelligentEngine forms a digital twin of a physical engine, with both connected by data. It’s contextually aware of its own operating conditions, the environment it’s flying in, the rest of the fleet it’s part of, and it’s consolidating that information to make smart decisions to maximize availability while minimizing maintenance costs and disruption.”
Data insights flow downstream
The benefits of this approach are huge in terms of aircraft availability and engine time on wing, which should translate into fewer delays and improved service. Rolls-Royce’s mission is that every Rolls-Royce powered aircraft flies on time, every time, with an availability as close as possible to 100%. This is where the confluence of predictive maintenance incentives comes together for all parties involved in flying.
“The Blue Data Thread contributes significantly to Rolls-Royce’s strategies to eliminate unplanned failures,” Ward says. “A jet engine is an incredibly complex example of high-engineering but being in-tune with the specific maintenance requirements and performance allows Rolls-Royce to accomplish feats such as powering an A330 to fly the equivalent of to the moon and back 50 times between overhauls.”
From physical to digital
The Rolls-Royce Blue Data Thread is a two-way maneuver. The engine supplier collects data from multiple sources, such as engine health monitoring and information from airline maintenance management systems and contextual real-time engine flying condition and MRO data from Rolls-Royce engine facilities.
IFS Maintenix automated data sharing is critical for Rolls-Royce to re-life its engine parts, but also to allow airlines and Rolls-Royce to collaborate and share more information about engine status – for example, which engine parts have been switched or inspected and if any other aircraft systems have been impacted by engine behavior. The result of this two-way exchange is a more complete picture of engine performance – a higher resolution digital twin and a way to deliver digital insights to improve physical part use while in-service.
Improvements to boost sustainability
Participating airlines were confidently expecting improvements in overall engine performance and cost from the IntelligentEngine and the Blue Data Thread initiatives. However, what perhaps wasn’t anticipated was weaving new predictive maintenance results into day-to-day processes.
“A Rolls-Royce Trent engine can, on average, fly around the world more than 1,000 times between significant engine events. Through multi-variable forecasting, IFS can map the data on how an airline expects to fly a particular engine and combine it with Rolls-Royce data on expected part life to provide a very accurate predictive maintenance deadline, right down to individual part numbers,” Ward says.
“Now accurate maintenance information is presented to airlines daily and is seamlessly consumed by their maintenance scheduler. Initial anecdotal reports show huge progress to extend the life cycle of engines and components, increasing the time to first engine removal by 48%.
“When you have this level of monitoring and data exchange, it indicates step change in predictive maintenance. So many engine components and their details are being dynamically monitored that previous preventative maintenance approaches are obsolete. With this level of tracking, most failures are detected on an individual level before they are likely to occur, well before planned maintenance cycles. Rolls-Royce has extreme faith in its predictive analytics strategy with a goal of zero false predictions and 100% success rate.”
As the aviation industry moves toward a greener future, digitalization and predictive maintenance will be an important element for engineering, and both IFS and Rolls-Royce have made strong sustainability commitments as part of their long-term business planning.2 The Blue Data Thread program aligns with these priorities. Reducing maintenance interventions, part replacements, and overhauls also lessens manufacturing energy use and resources and minimizes the emissions footprint of part and engine logistics.
Data sharing a key focus
From a technical perspective, airlines can be up and running on the Blue Data Thread through the IFS Maintenix plug-in in as little as two months. This requires a quick technology installation followed by specifying key modelling information such as engine utilization. It’s the accessibility and sovereignty of data which can bring up potential roadblocks.
Airlines running other maintenance management systems must ensure they can extract, store, and analyze critical data profiles from their supporting software. Some that are running legacy maintenance software may not be able to provide enough data to feed their engine’s Blue Data Thread and digital twin.
Airlines may have some data security reservations about certain lines of data, such as part leasing and ownership, so IFS and Rolls-Royce have designed controls to manage the level of data lines specific for each airline.
Underpinning the bilateral transfer of data from manufacturer to airline and back again is an interface/dashboard to parse the aggregated data points. The difference between data and information is the ability to translate raw data into actionable insights and meaningful information.
Data, digital technology, collaboration
Airlines face a digital imperative to make their operations more efficient, maximize engine life, and minimize delays – they need a data backbone. The Blue Data Thread provides this backbone to allow exchange of critical engine health and maintenance information and offer analytical insights to truly realize the potential of predictive maintenance – translating into daily improvements, significantly fewer unexpected failures, and maximum time on wing.