OEMs Put Technology To Work in MRO Operations

 - June 28, 2015, 12:01 PM
Tablet devices are not popular only with the flight crew; mechanics are using the latest technology to keep up with aircraft condition and ultimately reduce the downtime required for maintenance. (Photo: Embraer)

Growing fleets and the longevity of aircraft pose continual challenges to the manufacturers of business aircraft. Not only do the buyers of new turboprops and jets expect top-level customer support, but buyers of some of the oldest aircraft still sporting a current manufacturer’s nameplate have expectations that they will be able to find parts and get answers to technical questions. These issues put product support at the forefront for manufacturers and, indeed, at some the ranks of upper management are filled with the names of leaders who are known for their skills at taking care of customers’ aircraft.

AIN interviewed the five major business jet OEMs to assess the current state of their product-support efforts and to learn how they are using modern technology and tools to deliver support that their customers need and expect. (AIN’s annual Product Support Survey Report on how readers rate manufacturers’ efforts to take care of their aircraft, avionics and engines will appear in the August, September and October issues.)

One interesting change that has occurred is that all new aircraft come with much more sophisticated data-collection and-distribution systems than did previous-generation aircraft, and they provide reams more information for OEMs and maintainers. OEMs use this information not only to speed delivery of parts and service when maintenance troubles occur during flight, but also to further continual efforts to reduce maintenance costs by lengthening inspection and service intervals. The OEMs are pushing these efforts to their suppliers as well.

A side benefit of all these efforts is that newer aircraft require fewer technicians, coinciding with the demographic shortage of personnel that is affecting all segments of aviation.

This article focuses on certain aspects of each of the companies interviewed, but it should be noted that these manufacturers offer many similar services, such as mobile response units, capturing and dissemination of maintenance data, MSG-3 analysis, videos of maintenance tasks and so on.

Bombardier

Bombardier rolled out its new Aircraft Health Management System (AHMS) in May, and it represents a significant change in how the company approaches the capture and use of maintenance data.

Modern aircraft generate so much data that it’s easy to become dazzled by technology and all the opportunities for what can be done with that data. With AHMS Bombardier has created a more utilitarian system that matches the needs of the customer. “If we allow the technology to dazzle us,” said Andy Nureddin, vice president of customer services and support, “we lose what we’re trying to deliver to the end customer. If I’m a director of maintenance, what do I want of the health monitoring and health management systems on the aircraft?”

AHMS consists of four key tenets: connectivity, real-time monitoring, privacy and data analysis. The real-time monitoring element is currently available on the Learjet 70/75, and all AHMS features will be available on the Global 7000/8000 when they enter service. Bombardier is developing AHMS for the Global 5000/6000 and Challenger series. “Platforms vary in their degree of readiness,” he said, but all new models will be AHMS-ready by the end of next year.

The connectivity element has to do not only with aircraft being more Internet-capable but also more electronic. Bombardier wants to ensure that when real-time data is being sent to or from the airplane, the process is managed carefully because the cost of not doing so could be excessive.

“The next biggest thing on the director of maintenance’s mind,” Nureddin said, “is real-time monitoring of health as [the airplane] is flying.” As part of the support package when a new airplane is delivered, Bombardier will provide real-time health monitoring, if the customer wants that service. If pilots receive a CAS message that might require maintenance, real-time monitoring would allow that information to be sent to the operator’s base and Bombardier’s customer response center, he said, “so we can collaborate on the resolution immediately.”

Bombardier is using real-time monitoring not just to notify interested parties of a problem but also to provide resolution information. That means attaching to the problem notification a list of the most likely troubleshooting from Bombardier’s SmartFix Plus system, noting whether the problem is “MEL-able” or go/no-go or anything else about what might be required to fix it. This is much quicker than the previous process: pilot calls technician via satcom, technician pores through manuals hunting for the solution, pilot waits. “All this is to unburden the customer and provide real-time awareness and a path to resolution,” he said. “The idea here is to give all the tools to our customer.”

Next is data security and privacy, and this is becoming an important issue for owners of any product that can gather and share data. Bombardier has carved out a clear policy for data security and privacy. “A basic tenet of our approach is that the customer owns the data,” Nureddin said. “The customer can allow us in or not want us in their business. This is a sharp dichotomy from the consumer world of the Internet. We’re taking a good corporate citizenship approach, to say your privacy and your data are yours. We don’t retain it if you don’t want us to, and we don’t manipulate it if you don’t want us to. It’s the do-no-harm approach.”

Finally, the huge volume of data that is recorded by modern airplanes has to be handled efficiently. “We’re able to record tens of thousands of parameters,” said Nureddin. “What do you do with this bulk data?” What Bombardier is doing is making sure that it is prepared for new ways to use the data. “We want to be able to manipulate this data to provide solutions, from health monitoring in its truest sense to predictive maintenance, tracking hours and cycles, FOQA [flight operational quality assurance] feeding and getting credit for having a FOQA system.” Bombardier’s goal is to provide applications and solutions for putting this data to work–services it might charge for, such as FOQA analysis.

Bombardier wants customers to share this data with the factory because it will ultimately help lower operating costs and improve uptime. Not only can customers get back in the air sooner, but Bombardier can use the data to extend maintenance intervals, understand failure trends and improve component reliability. “Give us access to your data,” Nureddin said. “We will treat it with respect.”

Dassault Falcon

“A well trained technician is the best front-line support you can have,” said Dean Anderson, director of service network and maintenance training for Dassault Falcon. “If we can improve the level of training for not only our customer technicians, but also our service center technicians, our field reps and service engineers, that has an impact on reducing the number of delays and cancellations.”

Anderson, who oversees 13 Falcon service centers in the Western Hemisphere and is responsible for worldwide maintenance training, is also the interface between Dassault and training providers CAE SimuFlite and FlightSafety International.

In 2002, Anderson said, “we initiated a big project to work with the training providers to bring a level of accountability and standardization for training, both in maintenance and pilot training.” Falcon customers were complaining that the training provider materials were becoming disconnected from the manufacturer’s knowledge about how the airplanes are designed and how systems are supposed to work. When a new model entered service, a core cadre of instructors would work closely with Dassault Falcon to provide a quality training experience. But normal movement always happens and the experienced instructors would be replaced by new teachers who didn’t have the same connections with the Falcon factory, and the tribal knowledge would be lost. “We found back then that training varied from instructor to instructor in the same organization,” he explained.

The solution was to improve standardization, and Anderson’s team came up with the Falcon Training Policy Manual (FTPM). In addition to standardizing the training process, it also requires accountability from the training providers, to ensure that they embrace the process. “We used to have a lot of customer complaints to senior management,” Anderson said. “We’ve essentially stopped all that. This tells us that customers are receiving better value for their training.”

Training providers have to implement a change-management process to incorporate new information from Falcon Jet, he explained. “We’re talking about a process to ensure the training they’re delivering is to the latest information, and to show us as an OEM that the training content is there.” This means that as soon as Dassault Falcon issues a modification, service bulletin, service advisory or customer communiqué, the information is quickly made available to the students learning about the particular Falcon. “This requires a big commitment by the training providers, but in the end our mutual customers receive better value for their training,” he said.

The FTPM process was well under way as newer Falcon models entered service and worked well with them, especially because the process was incorporated during the design of the airplanes, not as an afterthought. On the 5X program, Anderson said, “The first thing we did was get with the program office and absorb as much of the design information as possible, including changes from [our] understanding of prior airplanes, which helps us build the training specifications that we put forward.”

Earlier on the 7X program, Falcon Jet used the then-new FTPM process to introduce some competition among training providers FlightSafety and CAE. FlightSafety had been the entitlement training provider for Falcon Jet until then, but CAE won the bidding for the 7X. “This helped control cost increases in training,” he said, “and also pitted one training provider against the other with a sense of pride in developing the best product.” Since then, 7X operators have been able to choose between the two training providers, both of which participate in the FTPM process.

Now Anderson’s team is working on further improvements to the maintenance training process, and this is reinforced in the FTPM. The idea is to teach technicians what they need to know and eliminate redundant information to keep training times reasonable. For example, any technician should know how a hydraulic pump works; this does not need to be covered during type-specific training. “All he needs to know now is does the pump make pressure or not,” Anderson pointed out. “He can only replace the pump. We have to recognize there’s only a limited amount of time we can take for training.” Even so, initial technician training events have grown to four weeks from two, as modern jets have become more complex. “We’ve compressed [the training] to make sure it isn’t even longer.”

Falcon Jet is taking advantage of distance-learning technology to help with the effort to keep training event times to a minimum. With the 8X and 5X programs, the company is adding more distance learning so technicians won’t have to spend so much time away. “We intend to introduce a level of distance learning to shave a week out of the length [of initial training] by training them on general familiarization content before they come to the training center,” he said. Falcon Jet is also planning to offer shorter video-based training with the introduction of the 5X. “I see it as the wave of the future,” Anderson said.

Embraer Executive Jets

With a growing fleet in Europe and Africa, Embraer Executive Jets is doubling the size of its Paris Le Bourget maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility and moving it to a more convenient location on the airport. The new facility will serve all Embraer business jets, including the new fly-by-wire Legacy 500 and 450. As many as 12 jets of various sizes will fit in the new building.

“Le Bourget has been the largest hub for bizjets in Europe since 2005,” said Waldir Gonçalves, vice president of customer support and services for executive jets. “It’s important to be there. We need to have adequate [facilities] to accommodate fleet growth, so we need to have good space and infrastructure to accommodate our growth there. Today we don’t have space in the current hangar for the Lineage 1000, [but] we’ll have this in the new MRO.”

The new facility will open in the second half of next year and replace the existing Embraer MRO hangar at Le Bourget. The current facility is located completely inside the secure area of Le Bourget, across from the airport’s many FBOs, and thus is somewhat inconvenient as customers have to go through full security checks to access the facility from outside the airport. In addition to space for new customer offices, the new facility will accommodate new backshop space for more services such as component repair and overhaul. “We want to move to the one-stop-shop concept in the future,” he said, “so we planned the building to increase the business of MRO, not only the ‘M’ [maintenance].”

Embraer currently has six factory-owned service centers and 69 authorized service centers around the world. Many of the authorized centers are ready to service the new Legacy 500 and the 450 when it enters service later this year. The first Legacy 500 in China will be delivered this year, he said, and there is already an authorized service center in Beijing. There are 42 Embraer field representatives worldwide. “These people are really important because they are close to the customer and experiencing their lives and knowing their needs and representing Embraer,” he said.

Last year, Embraer opened its newest owned service center in Sorocaba, Brazil, which also features an Embraer FBO. “The FBO and MRO are a huge investment to support Brazil,” he said. “We did have this need because we have a lot of airplanes flying in Brazil.”

Eight global parts distribution centers support the fleet, along with 55 on-site stocking locations to bring parts closer to customers. “Parts availability is over 96 percent,” Gonçalves said. “We are investing a lot because as soon as you know what is the problem, you need to have the parts, so the parts must be there and delivered quickly.”

To further aid customers who aren’t based near an Embraer facility, the company has deployed mobile response units, three in the U.S. (including one at Teterboro Airport), one in Brazil and one in Europe. “We can do line maintenance, AOG rescue, troubleshooting, minor scheduled maintenance, parts changes and service bulletin implementation,” he said.

Embraer’s 24/7 customer contact center in São José dos Campos, Brazil, has been open five years and now handles more than 10,000 interactions per month. Embraer’s standard sets a maximum of six seconds for one of the contact center experts to pick up a ringing telephone, 15 minutes for email responses and two hours for a complete answer to the customer’s question or issue. Embraer uses Salesforce software to ensure that contact-center experts and field service representatives stay abreast of customer issues, but one person at the contact center is assigned to be the event coordinator. “He follows every AOG to make sure the plan is as it should be,” said Emerson Leite, manager of the contact center.

The contact center’s mission is to take care of customers, and the 45 people who work the center’s three shifts are empowered to help as needed. “It’s customer-driven,” said Everton Vicente de Lima, director of contact center and technical support engineering. “It’s case by case, but there is no restriction on supporting the customer. That is key.”

“We don’t charge extra for this,” Leite said. “Customers understand that if they engage with us, we’re going to provide an answer.”

The optional Aircraft Health Analysis and Diagnosis system is available for all Embraer business jets and can be used to transmit maintenance and usage data directly to Embraer, either via datalink while flying, via Wi-Fi on the ground or by downloading from an SD card.

Gulfstream

Gulfstream’s product support efforts can best be summed up by its Fast acronym, which stands for Field and Airborne Support Teams. “That covers a number of things,” said Derek Zimmerman, vice president of product support and materials, including field service representatives around the world, parts distribution centers and Gulfstream’s two Fast jets and mobile service trucks. “We’re trying to maximize customer uptime,” he said. “If we can be where they are, that maximizes their ability to use their airplane.” (Zimmerman became president of Gulfstream product support on July 1, succeeding Mark Burns, who was promoted to president of Gulfstream.)

Nearly 70 Gulfstream field service reps work closely with operators in the field, but the frontline for product support is the 24/7 customer call center at Gulfstream headquarters in Savannah, Ga., which is also supported by satellite locations such as Hong Kong, London, Dallas and Long Beach, Calif. The call centers handle tens of thousands of calls per month and calls are funneled through the centers so customers don’t have to figure out a map of Gulfstream to know who to contact, Zimmerman explained. The Savannah call center is equipped with a graphical flight simulator that replicates Gulfstream cockpits to aid in troubleshooting. The satellite locations not only help handle problems with locally based personnel but also serve as the first responder for problems that can be shared later with Savannah for final resolution.

Gulfstream has taken modern technology a step further to support customers and not only puts material such as videos online but also runs the Gulfstream Product Support Network to share information with its far-flung operators. “We’re trying to make sure people have every last ounce of data,” said Zimmerman. Videos cover operational and technical issues, and the latter are organized by ATA chapter to make them easy to find. The studio created more than 200 videos last year.

This kind of content helps technicians see how to perform a specific task and helps new employees learn Gulfstream tricks and tips. The studio experts are also available to record operator conference sessions, which are then shared with all Gulfstream operators. Gulfstream holds an operators conference in Savannah every other year, Zimmerman noted, “but not everybody can come, so last year we recorded all of [the sessions].” He noted that “a lot” can change from year to year, and customers don’t attend every event. “Keep[ing] that information fresh is always a challenge,” he said.

“Video is still a frontier that we’re exploring,” he added, “and every day we find a new application. It’s a real opportunity and one that we’re continuing to expand. We did the first broadcast at the operator conference in 2012, and since then it’s grown exponentially to other places that we’re able to use the technology. When we do regional forums, we pick our sites to make sure that we’ve got a high-bandwidth connection back to the studio so we can move the information back and forth, so we can bring people on screen, we can ask questions and we can show information.”

Gulfstream has 11 company-owned service centers and four component repair facilities, and sister GD company Jet Aviation has seven factory-authorized service centers. “We’re doing 80 percent or more of the touch labor inside our service centers,” he said. The company’s Brunswick, Ga. location opened a new facility in June, and in Long Beach Gulfstream is adding a 19,000-sq-ft maintenance hangar and another 10,000 sq ft of support and office space. Last year Gulfstream opened a factory service center in Sorocaba, Brazil. A massive new 406,000-sq-ft parts distribution center will open soon at the Savannah campus.

Gulfstream pioneered the use of aircraft for customer support in 2002 and now has two Fast G150s covering North America, the Caribbean and even South America on occasion. “There is no specific charge for the airplane,” said Zimmerman. “It’s part of our suite of services.” The Fast 1 truck, a technician’s dream toolbox on big-rig wheels, is based in Savannah and deploys as needed to support operators, especially for big-ticket events where a lot of Gulfstreams congregate. Smaller Fast trucks are based in the San Francisco area, Houston and White Plains/Teterboro.

Textron Aviation

Like all aircraft manufacturers, Textron Aviation strives to control operating costs for owners of its aircraft by reducing the cost of maintenance. Since the original Sovereign program, Cessna invited customer service experts to join the advance design team to ensure that maintenance is considered from the beginning of the design process. The customer service team members use a set of standards developed in-house, called Maintenance Reduction by Design, and this has helped Cessna extend maintenance intervals and component lives to help bring down maintenance costs. These principles are also being applied to Cessna sister division Beechcraft under the Textron Aviation banner.

“We’re now trying to get to 800 hours or greater [for inspection intervals],” said Brad Thress, senior vice president of customer service. But hourly intervals aren’t the only target; for large fleet operators, not having to do something to a component more than once a year helps keep costs down. “We look at every component,” he said, “and use our experience as well.”

An example is a hydraulic pump, which was designed not to leak more than 30 drops per hour. “That’s not satisfactory for the customer,” he pointed out, “because they don’t want drops on the floor.” From a maintainability perspective, that pump should be designed not to leak as much. The nitrogen-filled accumulators on hydraulic pumps likewise add to maintenance costs because they need to be serviced occasionally to keep the nitrogen charge at the right level. But Textron engineers worked with the component vendor on a welded accumulator that doesn’t require recharging.

Engineers also look at alloys used to manufacture the airframe, and the Maintenance Reduction by Design “bible” addresses corrosion resistance from the early stages. “We get into a study of weight versus cost,” Thress explained. “We look at the structural side and the systems side.”

For calculation of maintenance intervals, Textron Aviation, like all business jet manufacturers, uses the MSG-3 (Maintenance Steering Group) process to eliminate redundant inspection and maintenance. “The whole philosophy is ‘Why am I inspecting this component?’” Thress said. “If the failure mode is benign, I don’t need to look at it. If it’s critical, then the proven reliability of the component will tell me when I should be looking at it.” MSG-3 is combined with system safety analysis, which analyzes hazard classes of possible failures, according to Thress. “This may drive a closer maintenance interval than something benign. We have to get all the design and failure modes analyzed by the system safety group and couple that with MSG to come up with intervals.”

These intervals are re-examined and adjusted based on feedback from operators and service centers. Since the customer team joined engineers and applied the Maintenance Reduction by Design process for the Sovereign, maintenance intervals on subsequent models have grown longer, and this has driven direct operating costs down 20 to 30 percent, according to Thress. “It’s a change in philosophy. Don’t tear something up to make sure it’s OK [and] then put it back together. Also, I don’t have to hire as many technicians as the fleet continues to grow.”

Engineers have driven further improvements in the maintenance process by reducing the number of crew alerting system (CAS) messages provided to pilots. As the cost of sensors dropped, engineers at first took advantage of them by capturing a lot of redundant information–a valve was either open or closed, even when this meant nothing to the pilot. “I think we over-reported,” Thress conceded. “We created a lot of indications that said, ‘I’m indicating your system is operating normally.’ Why? In the early 2000s, this became an irritant for some customers. We went back to the philosophy of a quiet-dark cockpit. Unless I need to take action, don’t tell me about it.” Since then, the number of CAS messages has dropped dramatically.