Airlines are motivated to keep engines on wing for as long as possible. But inevitably there comes a time when a commercial jet engine must go in for a shop visit to be overhauled.
GE and its joint ventures’ combined installed base of 39,000 commercial engines keeps maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) shops around the globe quite busy. Which is why Nicole Tibbetts, the chief manufacturing engineer for MRO at GE Aerospace, calls the company’s MRO network “the greatest leading indicator program in the world” for gauging engine performance.
Now that network is about to get a significant boost in its ability to industrialize and scale the repair process, and help the supply chain, with the creation of the Services Technology Acceleration Center (STAC), located just 5 miles from GE Aerospace’s headquarters in Cincinnati.
Tibbetts and her team have been hard at work over the past four years “industrializing” repairs — that is, the process by which they adjust and improve the life cycle of a part. “We’ve grown more than 30% year-on-year in terms of the number of repairs we’ve industrialized,” she says. “In 2018 we industrialized 400 repairs. This year we’re going to do 2,200.”
The MRO shops are the hinge point in speeding up the whole process. “They actually see the hardware as it comes out of the engine, and they understand how it’s impacted and how it should be serviced,” she says. “So the shops tell the services engineering team what’s happening to their hardware, and that kicks off the repair development cycle” — in which the engineers work with both design and the shops to update work instructions for how a part can be made “to fit form and function and be returned to the engine.”
“Repair is the biggest lever we have to drive improvement in dollars per shop visit,” Tibbetts adds. This can reduce the cost of ownership for customers. And because a repaired part tends to be significantly less than the cost of a new part, “we’re trying to put as much repaired material back into the engine as possible.”
But over the past four years, the shops have been grappling with three big challenges: the volume of parts needed for repairs, which has contributed to slowdowns in the supply chain; the ability to roll out updated repair regimens across the whole MRO network rather than have certain services available only at certain sites; and prepping for shop visits of the newest generation of engines, including the CFM LEAP and the GEnx, soon coming in for a second shop visit. Add to that the constraints caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the MRO shops are facing one of the biggest challenges in the industry’s history.
“We really needed to fundamentally do something different to ensure we can support our customers’ cost of ownership and the turnaround time that they need,” Tibbetts says.
This is where the STAC will help to “accelerate the repair journey,” as she puts it. The 85,000-square-foot facility, formerly owned by the Avon cosmetics company, is being reconstructed and will incorporate a high bay space for full-engine-overhaul technology advancement. It includes the Commercial Engine Lean Labs for new-make parts as well as the Aviation Inspection Services group. With all those players under one roof, the STAC will operate as a technology incubator, enabling the staff of 50 salaried employees to develop standardized models for repairs, from work processes to equipment capabilities to training packages, and then scale the innovations so that the repairs can be carried out at MRO shops around the globe.
“Before the equipment is ready to transition into an MRO production facility, we’ll have those special process owners come to the STAC to be trained and do everything from total preventive maintenance to audit checklists — really the whole package around how they would ingest this technology that’s been incubated,” Tibbetts says. Once that’s done, the services technology leaders will follow the new repair technology into the MRO shops to make sure it’s tested and qualified so the repaired parts meet the necessary requirements and are put to use.
The STAC, which is scheduled to be up and running in 2024, will also serve as a hub for the development of new ways to automate services using artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. “We’ve spent a lot of time working on robotic and AI-enabled inspection capability,” says Tibbetts, particularly with fluorescent penetrant and “white light” inspections of turbine blades. These new systems use an AI-powered robot to search for cracks, loss of thermal barrier coating, and overall dimensional tolerance of turbine blades. Using data compiled from thousands of tests, the system formulates a technical standard that takes subjectivity out of the inspection.
“You need to digitize and automate inspections if you’re ever going to digitize and automate the repair process,” Tibbets notes. MRO shops are always documenting the levels of damage and degradation in engine parts, and at what point in the life cycle they occurred. But with AI and machine learning, an archive of images is created that can both standardize the repair process and help predict when an engine may need to be overhauled, which can be enormously helpful for airlines.
“If you can predict when the engine is going to be removed, you can better manage lease pools,” says Tibbetts. “When you can predict the work scope, you can actually predict how much material is going to be needed by the time the engine hits the shop, both from the new-make supply chain and the repair supply chain.”
And since an image can be shared instantaneously by, say, a design engineer in Poland, a services tech leader in Cincinnati, and an MRO shop in Celma, Brazil, it saves time and improves outcomes. What’s more, as the system becomes more standardized and MRO personnel get trained, repairs will increasingly be completed at individual sites, reducing carbon emissions that come from shipping parts from one shop to another.
Tibbetts sees STAC as a major step change in GE Aerospace’s ability to harness data to improve MRO services, alleviate supply chain issues, and help customers keep their engines flying longer. “We’re really pulling together a cohesive and comprehensive strategy to redefine what the future of the aerospace services business looks like,” she says. “It’s the interconnectedness of that digital data thread that’s really going to make a difference for our customers.”