The researchers have made headway on each. In the visualized support system project, they have demonstrated the ability to assign minor jobs, work the jobs and then sign off on the jobs on a network. They have also accumulated data on the usefulness of 3-D graphical instructions versus 2-D instructions and enough data-mining to begin analysis. Recently, the group has begun experimenting with RFID and nearfield communication.
With each project, the goal is to show what can be done, to prove functionality and usefulness, Ropp and Lopp say. But just because something can be done doesn't mean it should be done, Ropp cautions. Despite the group's and industry's excitement about e-enablement, total e-enablement might not be the answer, Ropp says. “Do I want to spend a lot of my engineering development and time on a simple part that may not need the level of detail and granularity of display?” he asks.
It's an important issue that has led to what Ropp calls the “Mount Everest” challenge for Hangar of the Future: how to advance technology in simple, reasonably applicable ways. High costs and large infrastructure can scare off the maintenance industry, he observes. “When they run up against something that costs so much, they'll fall back to paper because paper doesn't change,” Ropp says. “We trust that system. We've done it for years.”
Another obstacle involves data-sharing and the willingness of industry to divulge sometimes-proprietary information for the sake of standardizing maintenance tasks. Ropp says the group is seeing more willingness from industry to share data and ideas, but there is still a ways to go. Discussions have generated ideas, including using a third-party outside the industry to catalogue the information, but the question of how to keep the data secure still remains.
Even so, data-sharing could help in standardizing and eventually automating some processes, Ropp and Lopp say. Lopp has done research into further automating non-routine tasks, once reducing a 103-step process to 45 steps by incorporating data-mining functions and more efficient communications without changing the actual process. Simple concepts, such as using standardized language and high-resolution graphics during the process can help, Ropp says. The group's initial research into visual just-in-time instruction during tasks has already reduced the number of missed or out-of-sequence steps, Ropp says.
But their ideas go beyond the technology and the processes and into the design of the hangar itself. Ropp and Lopp, along with researchers Gary Eiff, Mike Lapacek, Zoe Abdul and Marifran Mattson, presented a paper at the 1997 Airframe/Engine Maintenance and Repair Conference and Exposition on considering human factors in line maintenance facility design.
A hangar's design can affect productivity and communication channels, Lopp says. When upper-level management is kept separate from workers, communication between the shop floor and the management offices may slow down. Furthermore, hangars can be updated with simple elements to help workers do their jobs better. “We still see a few technicians working with miner's lights,” Lopp says. “How can we design a hangar with more light?” It's a small detail, but it gets at what Hangar of the Future is all about: rethinking maintenance operations without the constraints of today's technology and infrastructure.
“If you can envision several pieces of the pie coming together to form a whole, it's different technologies, processes and systems,” Ropp says. “We're finding the best in class—the most efficient in class—and we're building the pieces of that pie.”