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In an exclusive interview with Allan Bachan, Vice President of ICF talks about the evolution of aerospace technology in the past decades and how it is a boon for the industry veterans. With more than 20 years of experience in the industry, Allan has previously worked in Oliver Wyans, and HCL as VP and iMRO product manager.
1. In your opinion, how has the Aerospace Technology landscape evolved over the years? What are some of the advantages of the current technological evolution?
The Aerospace Technology landscape has evolved steadily and significantly over three interrelated dimensions:
The design of aircraft, engines and components has incorporated more use of software over the years. For example, there are over 250 loadable software aircraft parts (LSAPs) with over 1400 software versions on a typical Boeing 787. According to a Boeing statement made in 1999 “Modifying system functionality with new software instead of with modified or new hardware can help operators reduce the total number of hardware line replaceable units (LRU) in inventory, increase hardware commonality, and reduce airplane modification time”. At that time, there were no more than 40 LSAPs on a single Boeing fleet type.
The use of composites and carbon fiber for structures have also replaced the traditional metals and honeycomb designs. These changes have naturally introduced the corresponding need for maintenance practices change and evolution.
Consider the fully paperless design of the Boeing 777 aircraft from concept in 1990 to the first production unit in 1995. Now consider how much paper that first aircraft serial number has generated until today during its maintenance life cycle. While paperless philosophy has been tried and true in the OEM and manufacturing arena, no airline or MRO can currently claim 100% digitalization in managing and maintaining aviation assets. The quest to sustain a digital thread throughout is still elusive.
That said, many management and control processes involving functions that are not directly touching the aircraft, components or engines have matured.
The concept of hard time limits have evolved into health monitoring; prognostics; predictive and prescriptive approaches. Simple reporting has evolved into business analytics and business intelligence. Supporting IT systems have become more encompassing, complex and integrated to include the full gamut of processes including engineering, planning, production and supply chain. At last count, there are at least 45-50 dedicated systems for supporting MRO functions either enterprise wide or vertical solutions.
Evolution of technology in the execution and production functions –which involve touching the aircraft - has certainly matured over the years.
There is now prolific exploration and use of robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing, additive manufacturing, voice interfaces, touch interfaces, RFID and drones to mention a few.
Additionally, hardware and software advancements in real-time communication; collaboration; online storage; search engines; mobile devices and internet of things (IOT) have significantly enabled and empowered users to be more productive and efficient.
These technologies have now changed the nature of training and qualifications of the mechanic of tomorrow. Software fixes as just as predominant as hardware and a software loader is just as essential as a wrench. Furthermore, a deeper interpretation of data is needed before effecting corrective actions to aircraft defects. Parts replacement take on a whole new meaning.
2. What according to you are some of the challenges plaguing the Aerospace Technology landscape and how can they be effectively mitigated?
There are two key challenges being faced by the industry. The rapid pace of innovation and change and the slow pace of adoption by the business. These are in fact working against each other in some instances.
The rate at which new methods leveraging emerging technologies is very fast. By contrast, the rate of adoption is slow. There are several reasons for the adoption hurdles which include complexities of: slow regulatory approvals, legacy underlying platforms; large scale of projects; immature and small vendor support ecosystems.
To effectively mitigate these challenges, the success of the manufacturing processes must be leveraged in the aftermarket. The digital thread is already so well established in the building of aircraft and engines. We should then use that to transform the management of each asset from its inception rather than hand it off to the legacy technology and processes which are struggling so much with adoption.
3. Which are a few technological trends influencing Aerospace Technology today? What are some of the best practices businesses should adopt today to steer ahead of competitors?
There are several technological trends which influence Aerospace Technology today. Some of these are listed below in no priority order. As mentioned previously, given the length of this list, the proliferation and pace of innovation is what’s most daunting to the community.
• Augmenting human capabilities (with wearables and data)
• Robotics and automation
• 3D printing and additive manufacturing
• Virtual and augmented reality
• Internet of Things
• Alternative fuels and energy sources
• New aircraft designs
• Alternative modes of rapid transit (urban mobility)
• Geospatial technology
• Artificial intelligence
• Machine learning
• Voice interfaces
Staying ahead of the competition is often thought to be early adopters or first innovators. However, in this environment, it is recommended to pick a path and mature on it. That path may not necessarily be ‘the next big thing’ but it will certainly be something new.
The hesitation by the industry to adopt new technology is just that – hesitation. Virtually any project will be advancement. Nothing will be missed as it’s continually changing. Just getting started is really getting ahead.
4. Do you have any advice for industry veterans or budding entrepreneurs from the Aerospace Technology space?
Yes. For both. There is a natural human tendency to explore an learn what’s new. In a community consisting of mostly engineers or engineering orientations; this is further compounded with probative minds.
The risk is that we try everything new but it’s all we do. Seeing an idea or concept to fruition and not short cutting the process because of ‘something new’ is the challenge. Pick it and see it through. There will be time to catch up. The key is getting better and more agile at implementation and adoption. Perfect that and you will be ok.