November 05, 2012
Credit: Purdue University
Jenny Rogers Washington
As aircraft become increasingly advanced, researchers like those at Purdue's Hangar of the Future Research Laboratory are exploring what the future of maintenance looks like. The small group of faculty, students and research partners are examining everything from the design of aircraft hangars to automating aspects of the maintenance process.
“If we take a look at maintenance operations and some of the NextGen and some of the advancements in technology, our maintenance operation has probably not kept up scope-wise. So, what are some of the things that Hangar of the Future could take a look at?” says Tim Ropp, a Purdue professor and one of the lead faculty members for the Hangar of the Future project.
The project was officially commissioned in 2009 and is funded through Purdue and in-kind industry support from companies like Timco Aviation Services. Its stated goal is to develop “smart networks, smart tools and smart processes.” What the group seems to be after is not just physical advancements in visualized maintenance processes, RFID or maintenance task data-mining—all current projects—but, rather, to approach the hypothetical hangar of the future in a new and realistic way.
“When you take a look at the hangar of the future, don't get confined into what today's technology is or what technology is five years from now,” says Ropp. “Don't get caught in the box.” The group likes to throw out the year 2025 to get people thinking outside of their current sphere of technology.
The collective project began in the mid 2000s, when a variety of forces came together. Denver Lopp, a longtime Purdue professor and another lead faculty member on the project says maintenance outsourcing in the early 2000s presented a push for research into productivity and efficiency levels. At the time, research and development projects were already ongoing at Purdue but were largely kept isolated from each other. Around the time Lopp arrived at the university in 2005, NextGen transportation systems were gaining traction. “What the department really captured was 'What about the maintenance side of things?'” Ropp says. “What would the hangar of the future look like?”
With those questions in mind, the faculty began pulling similar projects together under the Jetson-esque moniker, “Hangar of the Future.” The objective? To develop those “smart” networks, tools and processes while, as Lopp puts it, keeping “the human in the loop.” The goal, he says, was never to fully mechanize all human elements or to remove a technician's choice through full-automation, but, rather, to automate systems in such a way that they increased a technician's “wrench time.”
Projects have ranged from mobile maintenance booth concepts, to 2-D bar-coding, to rethinking the basic layout of the hangar itself. The group is working on four key projects: a digital visual aircraft maintenance support system; electronic work instructions, including some with enhanced graphics; RFID and 2-D QR bar codes for both work instructions and inventory tracking; and data-mining and analysis into non-routine maintenance items.