Predicting What 2019 Will Bring for the Aviation MRO Market
The nice thing about writing predictions is that as long as you get relatively accurate on some of them, you are considered a seer or a guru (I prefer the term seer since guru seems overused). For this reason, am brushing the dust off of my crystal ball, and making some observations for the aviation MRO market for 2019.
Prediction #1: Blockchain Will Continue to be Used by More Aviation Maintenance Entities
Aircraft have one heckuva a lot of parts, and the challenge to track, manage and properly document them throughout their lifecycle is a challenge. Documentation systems have been evolving with technology for the past few decades on helping automate many of the manually-intensive tasks maintenance personnel, but in reality, few people are completely happy with most such products.
Enter blockchain. By use of this technology, it may be possible to track each and every aircraft part, and each and every repair, inspection, change of ownership and each time someone touches it, and trust the resulting documentation trail over decades of a parts life.
Early efforts such as the electronic FAA 8103–3s (e8130–3’s) where data was created using ATA Spec 2000 XML definitions and rules, and the FAA and other regulators began accepting digital records instead of paper records helped kick-start the entrance of blockchain in aviation. E8130–3s never quite gained wide acceptance, but, their use has slowly expanded.
But now, many startups and legacy industry entities are moving into supporting the use of blockchain-enabled mechanisms to expand parts tracking. If some of these efforts can gain traction and bring together lifecycle and documentation from OEMs/manufacturer, suppliers, inspectors, distributors, installers, and operator (and regulators), this would truly impact the entire aviation industry positively. No more islands of information, each marooned at XX,XXX’s of companies around the world, causing much guesswork, repeating unnecessary tasks, and a devaluation of the value of a part which may have a much longer lifecycle (but due to the lack of trusted documentation, will not).
If we can have a clear and concise record of every aircraft part from the cradle to the grave, which all of aviation has access to, and everyone can trust, nirvana will be reached. Even if we end up having several regional solutions of blockchain providers, it will be a major step forward. The cost savings of overhead costs, paper storage costs and unnecessary inspections alone would fund the entire blockchain development effort.
But it would take several iterations of slow change, where OEMs would need to begin issuing blockchain records for all new aircraft parts. Airlines/operators would also need to add onto such records, as would MROs and distributors, and all inspectors and regulators would need to support a significant process change as to how parts are tracked, and how their associated documentation, manuals/notices/etc. are handled. A blockchain ledger or ledgers would need to have wide acceptance, and governments would need to help industry in this, due to legal reasons.
Some of this has already begun, driven by companies, and we are only in the very early initial stage. Y2019 should be an exciting year for aviation blockchain.
Prediction #2: Humans and Machines Will Continue to Meld (to everyone’s benefit)
Many industry pundits have been touting this recently, so this is not much of a risky prophecy. Terms such as Artificial intelligence (AI), cognitive computing and Big Data have been in the headlines, and rightfully so. One of the key areas which has made use of these buzzwords is predictive maintenance. The industry has seen major advances here in the initial waves of products which help maintain aircraft via optimized maintenance planning and reducing costs by decreasing the needs to perform certain types of routine repairs and the related labor and inventory costs. With further advances in smarter diagnostics, where computers can use natural language processing to convert vocal inquiries from maintenance personnel to search thru databases to provide direction (pretty much like Siri or Alexa from Google and Apple, respectively, do at your home).
Such advancements are building upon the commercial consumer electronics industry advances to merge with aviation industry detailed technical information to further decrease aircraft down-times and make the best of use of time for experienced mechanics with the most up-to-date data.
New advances such as ‘mixed reality’ are built upon augmented reality (which has been around for some time, but has never really lived up to its billing) and virtual reality (which has seen recent success in the consumer market as of late, especially in the gaming community). Products such as Google Glass and Oculus have moved the bar forward here, and now we are seeing aviation firms integrate in such products for use in aircraft maintenance to allow for hands-free access to interactive 3D wiring diagrams, CAD drawings, etc. as you ‘look’ upon a specific location on an aircraft, and the type of data you need is overlaid where you are looking.
Similar efforts along these lines had happened in the past, but due to costs and the immaturity of the technology, did not gain wide acceptance. The future is here (again), and it looks pretty darn good!
Prediction #3: Robots and Drones Will Take Over More Maintenance Tasks
There have been several well-publicized efforts by various airlines and technology solution providers to use either drones or robots to inspect aircraft, decreasing costs and speeding up aircraft downtime. This trend has only just begun and will spread and grow.
As of 2018, most of these efforts have been for some type of machine which has a small series of well-defined duties, as we shift responsibilities from humans to robots. As sensor technology becomes better and costs decrease, and once technology providers are able to meld together these robots with Big Data databases and software systems, which are able to work with a human operator (hence Prediction #3 is a ‘flow-over’ from Prediction #2) to not only take on more inspection tasks, but to have the results of any findings quickly diagnosed, and direction to a technician/mechanic provided much more concisely (and to be able to document this as well, adding to a blockchain record of a part, as noted in Prediction #1).
Not only are individual airlines and MROs embarking on such projects, but, many technology companies are emerging to provide customers with off-the-shelf solutions. The sub-niche of maintenance-focused drones will evolve to the point where it may be too expensive to have human inspectors for such tasks anymore (soon).
With the continued shortfall of trained aviation maintenance personnel, this set of products may help solve part of that particular issue.
So this prediction is more of a Robot/Human/Database melding.
Prediction #4: Mobility Computing and Cloud Computing May Eliminate the Need for Local IT Resources
This is another area where the aviation industry can reduce not only their personnel costs but also in not needing to deploy information technology resources (computers, network gear, software, digital storage, associated power needs, etc.).
Cloud computing has been growing by leaps and bounds in the past decade and continues to do so. Now many of the aviation software providers are moving much of their newer products onto the cloud and providing cost-effective solutions. Software-as-a-service (SaaS) has invaded nearly every industry in the world, and airlines, OEMs, distributors and MROs are adopting this due to having to support far-flung operations (or if they are smaller entities, they need to exchange data with their customers and business partners globally).
In addition to the cost-savings, have cloud-based software and databases supports mobile devices since up-to-date information can be pushed on demand to a smartphone or tablet as needed, no need to maintain large data repositories at each physical location anymore.
And the more information is centralized in the cloud, the more data analysis and cognitive computing are possible. When data was stored in dozens of locations previously (for some larger entities), it was difficult for an application to extract and analyze information to identify maintenance trending situations, or to optimize line maintenance execution and planning. Now that more information is not only sorted and archived in a singular location, and data types are more standardized, the easier for an artificial intelligence application to operate. This also supports better decision-making, and the results of all of this are relayed to local mobile devices for personnel to execute resulting marching orders.
The growth of cloud-based mobile solutions can be deployed with minimal physical installation required. All of this is supported by the communications revolution, where faster and better access is ever increasing. The coming rollout of 5G communications will provide for much wider and faster bandwidth (5G is the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications, which surpasses the previous generation 4G, 3G, and 2G systems. This new emerging standard supports high data rates, massive device connectivity, reduced latency, cost reduction, higher system capacity, and energy savings). In fact, the next-generation of cloud computing and mobility will be further enabled by 5G to support an ever-growing set of capabilities which may not have been possible otherwise.
I will keep my predictions to the four sets of areas noted, and as none of these are ground-breaking, each has much more room to grow in aviation. Y2019 will be another interesting year for the industry, as we are working on several generational changes which are still a few years away, such as electric aircraft, supersonic flight, commercial space operations on a larger scale, and personal drones (which are nearly ready). What a great time to work in this industry, since change breeds opportunity and opportunity drives innovation.