Automation has played a part in maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) of aircraft for some time now. Robotics and automated processes have helped airlines and service providers to improve efficiencies while working on aircraft, often complementing skilled manual work.
Although these processes have been around for a while, as new technologies are developed, the way engineers perform their duties on the ramp and inside the hangar is evolving, and various companies are offering different methods to facilitate the process of change, Tom Willis reports.
Laser Aviation is one of those enterprises looking to play its part in modernising such processes – a company ‘dedicated to the development of 3D laser images of any type of aircraft’s interior, exterior or aircraft component’. Laser aims to lead the industry with ‘turnkey solutions in dimensional documentation of aircraft and 3D solid modelling’.
Although small, early developments were first made in regards to three-dimensional printing in the mid-eighties, it was not until the start of this decade that 3D printing was perceived clearly to have serious applications to a number of industries. In an article published in The Economist in 2012, it was suggested that ‘as manufacturing goes digital, it will change out of all recognition’; the story went on to remark that 3D modelling and printing were marking the start of a ‘third industrial revolution’.
The article reported that an American company named 3D Systems had been able to use a 3D printer to produce a hammer, furthering the idea of using 3D printing for tools as well as products. It further noted that while the technology remained “relatively young”, it was already being used by companies wishing to produce early versions of products before they ever hit the full manufacturing line.
Many companies use this type of 3D printing for commercial products, such as electronics, or shoes, to name just a couple. Laser Aviation has demonstrated its use in the aviation industry. Mike Mullett, president of Laser Aviation, is enthusiastic about the firm’s progress.
There are a number of manufacturers around the world developing laser scanners and laser scanning technology, so how does Laser fit within this relatively niche part of the industry and how does it benefit MRO? The modelling and scanning technology that Laser Aviation employs “will capture within [millimetres] accuracy on the scans we develop,” Mullett contends. The “data-rich” scans are conducted on different views of the aircraft – up and down, above and below – and they produce a “clean picture” of the aircraft they are scanning.
The technology that Laser uses can scan everything from “small, civil engineer planes to B747s, and everything in between”. These scans and models have implication for MRO engineers. Mullett states that the “FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] in the US considers it a tool”, leaving any potential liability of its use to the engineers. And, he adds, “We try to work with aerospace engineers… that way they end up supporting the MRO facilities.”
Mullett argues that “[the] benefits to MRO are that there is better, richer data, it’s more accurate, very objective – with no subjectivity, even big airlines… are starting to realise and understand the benefits of using it.”
One notable challenge faced by the company is the cost of the equipment. It is costly for Laser to acquire the technology. Mullett states that “…the problem can be that the equipment can range anywhere between US$60,000 and $153,000 dollars…
companies who employ it regularly normally have three or four pieces of it,” making the overall cost to them perhaps $500,000 dollars or more. Coupled with this is the cost for the software to use the technology, which can cost in the range of $11,000 to $20,000. The “technical expertise employed” is also an added cost.
Nevertheless, Mullett states that “3D printing is coming on strong”, and has already had an impact on the aviation business, and MRO in particular. His company has already started producing 3D printed models of aircraft parts and prototypes, such as sheet metal components and parts of instrument panels. It has also helped model other aircraft parts ranging “from cabin seats and interiors to landing gear parts [and] many other components in aircraft”
Specifically in the area of cabin seats, Laser has worked with MROs to model and develop solid model components: “a 3D library for cabin interiors” which can be used to appropriately design and create aircraft interiors.
Mullett sees 3D printing as a huge digital industrial change. He even suggests that, in a few years, “General Electric will have 40% of their engines 3D printed.” The times, particularly the manufacturing times, are changing; the digital world is becoming more tangible than ever.
Mullett predicts huge growth in the training and augmented reality industries too, as they continue to trend in aviation – often together. In the world of cargo, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently demonstrated its virtual reality (VR) training demo, RampVR, at the World Cargo Symposium (WCS) in Abu Dhabi. Also a feature of the cargo conference was a well-attended discussion on Wearables, VR and AR (alternative reality) in the industry. They are all hot topics.
Does a company like Laser Aviation come at the time of a third industrial revolution – one that is characteristically digital? Time will tell, but that time is likely to be sooner rather than later.