Jet engine makers estimate they lose millions of dollars each year because nuts that seal fluid lines and hoses, called b-nuts, aren’t screwed on just right. If the b-nuts are deemed too loose or too tight during testing, the engine has to be fixed before it can power a plane with paying passengers.
Until recently, there were few good ways to tell if the nut had hit that sweet spot. Workers with torque wrenches had to rely on their skill and judgment to nail the delicate balance.
But a company called Upskill that makes augmented reality (AR) software for wearables like smart glasses is now turning art into science. Upskill, which received backing from GE Ventures, has started working with Glass (formerly Google Glass) and GE Aviation to build an AR solution that connects a smart torque to perfect all of the steps in building a jet engine that require tightening nuts.
A team of mechanics in Cincinnati piloted smart glasses that use Upskill’s Skylight software to walk them through several tricky tasks. For example, Skylight alerts mechanics through the smart glasses when they need to use a torque wrench. Next, when the Wi-Fi-enabled torque wrench starts to apply torque, it shares the information with the Skylight server. Skylight then tells the mechanic whether they are properly tightening and sealing crucial jet engine b-nuts. Skylight will verify the correct value in real time before the mechanic moves on to the next step.
“This has tremendous potential to minimize errors, cut down on costs and improve product quality,” says Ted Robertson, engineering manager at GE Aviation. “We’ve also seen an increase in productivity and efficiency improvements.”
Before the team started using Skylight on Glass Enterprise Edition specs with the new wrenches, mechanics often had to stop what they were doing, check manuals or contact experts to make sure they were torqueing correctly (see video above). But with Glass running on the Skylight platform, they can easily pull up digitized directions and study them in their line of sight. The mechanics can also access training videos or use voice commands to contact experts for immediate assistance. They can even stream their point of view through a live video connection and show the expert what they are seeing. The expert can then walk the mechanic through troubleshooting.
Some 85 percent of the 15 mechanics who participated said the system would reduce manufacturing errors, and 60 percent said they preferred using the wearable technology to the traditional methods. It took one senior mechanic 35 minutes to complete a task without the glasses and 32 minutes with the glasses — an 8 percent improvement. Later that day, while performing another maintenance task, the same mechanic clocked in 51 minutes using standard procedure and 38 minutes with the glasses — a 25 percent improvement. On average, across all mechanics studied, the efficiency improvements were between 8 and 11 percent, a number that might grow once the learning curve for use of the devices is mastered.
Based on the data, GE estimated that the bolt-tightening tech could save the company millions over a decade.
Skylight also digitally tracks results. After each nut is tightened, Skylight takes a photo (through the smart glasses) and automatically records the final correct torque value and saves this information. Those records will be able to provide instant quality control on future projects and they create a digital trail of work that has been done on each jet engine.
Skylight is currently being used in seven different projects across 12 GE locations and in almost every GE business. The applications include complex production and assembly, repair, maintenance and logistics management. Not all of these projects use Glass Enterprise Edition. “We’re hardware agnostic,” says Christine Bohle Boyd, vice president of marketing at Upskill. “You should choose the hardware that’s best for the use case.” She says Glass has worked well for the In-Torque Team at GE Aviation project because the glasses are extremely lightweight, and the display itself does not obstruct the user’s line of vision.
Robertson says there are opportunities to expand this particular program across more industries. “It can be used in so many applications,” he says. “Occasionally humans make mistakes—this will greatly improve that.”
Top image: A team of mechanics in Cincinnati recently piloted smart glasses that use Upskill’s Skylight software to walk them through several tasks. Being able to review directions within their line of sight, rather than break away to consult printed manuals, boosted efficiency between 8 and 11 percent on average. Image credit: Upskill