Aircraft big data entering the skies of next-generation maintenance

04 May 2016 6 min. read

As a new fleet of modern commercial airliners takes wing, so does a new breed of maintaining them. New aircrafts are becoming a rich source of big data as many of their systems and components are constantly being monitored. The information allows OEM, operators and MRO to constantly monitor the heath of planes as well as improve the decision making process around maintenance. While the technology promises much, a new report highlights that so far a business case remains elusive. 

Big data has been making headlines in a number of industries, promising to revolutionise the way in which businesses are able to make decisions, thereby leading to greater operational efficiency, cost reduction and reduced risk. One of the sectors slated to benefit from the use of big data, and associated analytics, is the aviation industry. Maintenance of aircraft through the collection of data has the potential not merely to create transparency and improve maintenance outcomes – such as decreased downtime – through aircraft health monitoring systems, but also to improve long term outcomes through predictive maintenance system. 

In a new report from Oliver Wyman, titled ‘MRO Big Data - A Lion or a Lamb?’, the consulting firm explores the current state of big data deployment within the aviation industry, as well as consider the current challenges faced by OEM, operators and MRO. The report is built from a survey of the wider industry, and is predominantly based on C-suite respondents. 

The growth of aircraft big data
Following a marked decrease in fuel prices, as well as increased interest in travel – especially within the Asia-Pacific region – investment in next-generation aircraft and supporting technology infrastructure has picked up in recent years. The growth of next-generation aircrafts is projected to rise rapidly, reaching more than 15,000 by 2026. As the number of planes grow, so does the amount of information gathered from the fleet

The newest aircraft lines have technologies on board that are able to measure and record an extremely wide variety of metrics across a range of areas – at the system and part level. Currently, around 2 exabytes of data are generated every year, by 2026 this may have grown to a staggering 98 exabytes per year – by comparison, the total global IP traffic reached around 966 exabytes in 2015.

Data based maintenance
The utilisation of the currently generated large volumes of information remains relatively low. From all respondents, 27% say that they rely on aircraft health monitoring (AHM) systems to manage all the aircrafts in their fleet, while 29% say they rely on it for select fleets – 44% of respondents however, do not use the data they gather for health monitoring. 

The data on engines is the most interesting to respondents, cited by 89% as an area where health monitoring is used, followed by airframe maintenance, at 55%, and component maintenance, at 43%.

The use of predictive maintenance (PM) technology is less often deployed by respondents. A total of 56% do not use the method at all, while 25% use it in select fleets only and 19% on all aircrafts. Again, engine maintenance is the major focus in this category, although airframe maintenance and component maintenance are closer in use, at 29% and 33% respectively. 

The generation of large amounts of information which needs to be combed for actionable – maintenance related – insights remains daunting for a number of respondents, and creates new storage, organisation, and application challenges. Many operators are opting, initially maybe, for more modest data analytics programmes that focus on a restricted subset of the information – often aimed at creating high impact advantages. 59% of the respondents are planning to restructure AHM to small sub-sets of data – either themselves or through third parties. For those using PM, 83% focus on narrow subsets, while only one in five expect to apply predictive techniques to all available data.

Reported data benefits
The business case for a wide-scale deployment of big data solutions within the aviation industry remains elusive for many respondents. The report asked respondents that have implemented AHM and to a lesser extent PM about the improvements to operations. AHM is shown to be the most effective at reducing reliability issues, as cited by 63% of respondents, followed by a decrease in engine maintenance costs, cited by 35%. The technology is considered to improve costs in technology maintenance and total cost of ownership by 20% in each category. Many of the indicators on the maintenance side do not show a noticeable improvement from the adoption of AHM.

On the PM side, particularly a cost reduction in airframe maintenance is noted, at 37%, followed by a decrease in engine maintenance, at 33%. A noticeable increase in reliability is further noted by 30% of respondents using the technology. 

According to the report, “Outcomes like reliability gains and cost savings are tangible benefits operators can point to in justifying further investment in analytics – hardware, software, and people. And yet, other sources of value traditionally required in investment cases (such as spare parts reductions, shorter turn times) are less commonly experienced, suggesting significant work remains to tap the full potential big data technologies offer.” 

Concerns about the effectiveness of the technology is reflected in respondents’ reflection on whether organisations believes AHM systems have reached a level of maturity. As it stands, 8% believe the technology has reached the level of sophistication anticipated for this technology, while 22% believe it is rapidly becoming a core decision-making tool. A large proportion of respondents see the technology as gradually becoming a core decision-making tool, at 37%, while 22% of respondents believe the technology is still at an early state, and 8% of respondents say it is not ready for a thorough investment. 

The consulting firm adds: “we expect investment will continue as users integrate these technologies further into airline technical and MRO organisations, possibly even ahead of an established history of tangible benefits. Tellingly, half of respondents (53%) said they plan to invest further in AHM over the next three years.”