We are moving towards a future which increasingly resembles science fiction… a genre that reflects the way we have always imagined mankind’s future, through connections with machines and artificial intelligence. This progress, especially in industrial contexts, can be seen in a series of digital or cybernetic instruments which, for instance, provide important assistance for particularly delicate and specialized operations such as servicing engines or engine components.
As with all delicate precision operations – considering the elevated number of operations involved in the maintenance of a single aviation component – overhaul and repair procedures follow a series of meticulous instructions and work sequences that must be fully respected.
In Avio Aero – starting from two well-defined and delimited areas of the Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) shop floor in Brindisi – a pilot project has been launched concerning the use of intelligent eyewear: Microsoft© HoloLens glasses are involved, equipped with an internal software developed for the purpose by an in-house IT team. The goal is to assist operators in carrying out revision activities on aviation modules, aiming to develop this instrument to the point where it could support the revision of an entire engine.
“The operators who carry out maintenance and revision on military engines here in Brindisi follow instructions available either in print or in PDF format. These instructions guarantee correct sequence of operations to be carried out on the component or on the entire engine”, Matteo Nestola, Digital MRO support in the Brindisi plant, explains.
Matteo’s academic path passed through Physics and now he works on the pilot project with an inter-functional team made up of IT experts, technical operators and program managers: “the HoloLens glasses make it possible for the operator to visualize those documents at any moment, with precision and reliability, while continuing to work on the piece they are servicing” As a young technician, even if not exactly a digital native, Matteo immediately recognized the huge prospective of this application and began to study its prospective benefits.
Today, the operator counts on available instructions, either printed or on a computer, situated near their work area, consulting them several times during their task activity.
The HoloLens are positioned on the head, like a kind of halo, and the operator uses simple hand movements to gain immediate and easy access to the operational instructions and to many other resources which can help them to perfect and improve their duties: information, more detailed and progressive instructions, models of sample images and training videos.
“Undoubtedly, there’s enormous potential for assimilation time saving during training phases, as well as during operations, which can be notably speeded up thanks to the improvement in terms of support tools and ergonomics for our technicians. All of which facilitates greater efficiency and productivity”, says Roberto Bianco, leader of the Brindisi MRO CoE. “We revise over 70 different types of aviation engine modules and developing this technology we can aim not only to save time, but also to improve quality. One can think of integrations with the industrial cloud on the management and traceability of tools, measuring instruments and task progress.”
Technically, these glasses – worn on top of the safety eyewear used in all GE factories – are able to augment the reality perceived by the operator with virtual windows containing data which is fundamental for backing up high precision operations.
Users can decide where to position each multimedia content in the virtual space that surrounds them (called ‘spatial persistence’ in IT), thus enhancing and personalizing their work environment with additional contents, maximizing ergonomics and minimizing unnecessary movements.
Osvaldo Santovito is a Team leader in the MRO area in Brindisi, with a 36 years expertise in Avio Aero, and for the last 26 years he specialized in dismantling, maintaining and remounting the military engines which have made, and are continuing to make, aviation history. “My son is a computer expert with the Carabinieri, and he detests accumulated paperwork”, says Osvaldo, “and he’d be convinced that this project is absolutely breaking through.” Osvaldo is a vital representative for his team, and for the 3 youngest colleagues with whom he is personally developing the adoption of these special glasses, despite his lower level of computer proficiency.
“Adapting to and familiarizing with these digital novelties has certainly been much faster and easier for them, I belong to a generation that needs a bit more time to absorb certain innovations. But I can see that this tool clearly offers astonishing advantages: as well as reducing errors caused by distraction or loss of printed info, it can help people (especially the young) to learn the work phases more quickly and thoroughly. It boosts their ability to deal with the elevated complexity of our work, their autonomy and consequently their performance.”
In the first phase, the pilot project will focus on two engine modules regularly revised in our workshop: the combined oil pump for the EJ200 and the low pressure turbine stator of the RB199.
The project’s goals are to decisively improve control of single MRO operations, to reduce training times and to enhance user experience of technical instructions, with consequent benefits terms of performance.
Future prospects are even more tantalizing, and indeed science fiction-like: Matteo and the entire team working on this project list an astonishing series of scenarios for the kind of evolution that can derive from optimizing this instrument. “The glasses also possess an integrated video camera. This allows an immediate tool recognition as well as the availability of their use instructions. If necessary they can also record any operation (e.g. for technical investigation purposes).
In the end, it will be possible to store information and knowledge for the benefit of colleagues or other work groups.
For the moment, smart glasses have been adopted in pilot areas of the military MRO service in Avio Aero’s Brindisi plant, but will soon spread to its “sister” area, in the CRO (Component repair and overhaul) shop in Pomigliano. They fit well with the concept of offering digital services for fleets and aviation engines which GE Aviation launched a while ago through True Choice (notching up a major success at the last Paris Air Show), and with centers spread across the world but connected to the Predix industrial cloud.
Who knows? Perhaps one day we’ll have a ‘bionic operator’ capable of working with maximum effectiveness and efficiency on machinery and high-tech products thanks to cybernetic tools. Just hoping to still be around and tell you about it!