When augmented reality augments maintenance efficiency
Safran has developed a new augmented reality technique to improve servicing of aircraft wiring. Now on offer to airlines, this innovative technique considerably reduces the time planes must be grounded for maintenance.
Meeting a potential customer
After a 13-hour flight, Christopher, a sales engineer with EWISE Services, the maintenance arm of Safran Electrical & Power, finally gets to his destination. EWISE Services offers a complete range of through-life support services for the electrical systems on aircraft like these.
Today, he's meeting the head of engineering at one of the leading airlines in Southeast Asia.
This airline company deploys a fleet over one hundred strong, including a large number of Airbus wide-body jets.
The two men already met not long ago in Paris, at the "Convergences" trade show, dedicated to tomorrow's industries. The airline's head of engineering had been very impressed by how Safran incorporated the latest digital technologies in its production facilities, and in a number of the services offered to both plane-makers and airlines.
Christopher had explained to him the advantages of using augmented reality in this field, which is subject to increasingly stringent safety and compliance requirements. In particular, he explained how this new technology could drive significant improvements in quality and productivity.
Addressing a specific problem
After taking Christopher on a quick tour of their facilities, his hosts emphasized the importance of maintaining their fleet's dispatch reliability, saying
You probably know better than anyone that electrical failures due to wiring are few and far between. But when they do unfortunately occur, they're very difficult to detect. And they often ground the plane for a long time, which is expensive.
Christopher slowly begins to smile, since the solution he will offer the operator today perfectly meets his needs! Christopher and his hosts are comfortably set up in a meeting room, where he starts his presentation by explaining how this technology has been adopted by Safran Electrical & Power.
Implementing augmented reality really comes into its own for our aircraft wiring business, because it's used in conjunction with a manual process, where little or no automation is possible. It also makes sense because of the large mass of complex data that our technicians have to use.
Before going into the actual on-site troubleshooting operations offered by EWISE Services, he quickly describes how augmented reality has become an integral part of the production process at Safran's plants.
The origins of digital data
At Safran Electrical & Power, the digitization of engineering kicked off in the early 2000s, allowing designer to transition from their drawing boards to digital plans on computers. Christopher explains that this technology shift considerably increased simulation and computation capacity, but without really generating gains in productivity.
In fact, he explains, there wasn't really any way for operators to take advantage of the digital data in 3D models during the manual wiring operations.
So their work was still based on printed plans and instructions. For example, these instructions would tell them where to cut or strip the wire, where it should be crimped, how to route it using little labels to get from point A to point B, etc.
The AR revolution
Safran Electrical & Power has deployed augmented reality since 2016, in a drive to ensure real digital continuity. Christopher explains,
In short, we are at last capitalizing on the advantages of the first phase of digitization from fifteen years ago! For example, take the cable routing process.
We no longer have to read those little labels I just mentioned, nor decrypt printed plans to see where the wires go.
From now on, operators use a 3D image projected on the fuselage to show them exactly where the wiring goes!
Christopher then shows his hosts that an additional imaging processing step, using a small camera, can be used to check the proper positioning of the wire, all in real time.
This processing step increases productivity and quality tenfold!
This is a new technology, in fact, which could also be used on final assembly lines at aircraft manufacturers, so they can optimize final development, especially the first time an aircraft is energized.
Electrical system maintenance services
For EWISE Services, augmented reality could open the door to a new and very promising market. In the United States alone, the airlines' annual cost of detecting this type of failure is estimated at 100 million dollars!
Christopher points out that
Our primary concern is improving performance. In this case, we brought together two technology building blocks to come up with the aircraft wiring monitoring and diagnostic solutions that we now offer.
He then shows several slides with schematics and charts to further explain the concept, explaining that the first building block in this solution is reflectometry.
That's a diagnostics method based on the principle of radar. A sounding signal is sent through the wire, allowing us to see if it's cut or damaged, while also showing at what distance the problem is located.
This technique is proposed by WiN MS, a startup specialized in cable monitoring, which has signed a collaboration agreement with Safran Electrical & Power. However, this information alone is not enough to find the exact location of the problem, because wiring inside the airplane is never straight: it climbs, descends, goes around obstacles, etc., all according to the original routing plan.
An exclusive technological innovation
Christopher continues his presentation by describing the other building block.
The second part of this solution is the powerful algorithm developed by Safran Electrical & Power, allowing us to interpret the data generated by reflectometry, so we can pinpoint the location of the anomaly.
The maintenance technician walks around the airplane's fuselage, using a tablet that displays a 3D model to see, with "X-Ray vision", the wires behind the airplane's walls, as well as the exact location of the electrical failure. Then all he has to do is remove the panel in question to get to the defective wire and repair it.
Before we needed several days to find this sort of problem, but now we can do it in a couple of hours, enthuses Christopher. For the airline, that means planes get back in the air faster, and maintenance costs are lower. Before, troubleshooting operations like this required two persons. Now, since the process has proved to be very intuitive, a single technician can do the job.
Traditional troubleshooting techniques often needed several tries to discover the defective wire. Today, thanks to augmented reality, we can ‘get it right the first time!