Fueling next-generation MRO with intelligent assets

May 26, 2017
The concept of a “smart asset” can have many connotations, but the way we think of it is simple: An asset is able to “tell its story” at the point of use to anyone with a smartphone-based reader and proper security credentials. At its core, the smart asset approach is about distributing digital product information and life-cycle history on the product itself, across its entire lifetime. This can now be accomplished with inexpensive, rugged semiconductor chips attached to, or embedded within, a given asset.

By Bill Stevenson, Tego Inc.

The concept of a “smart asset” can have many connotations, but the way we think of it is simple: An asset is able to “tell its story” at the point of use to anyone with a smartphone-based reader and proper security credentials. At its core, the smart asset approach is about distributing digital product information and life-cycle history on the product itself, across its entire lifetime. This can now be accomplished with inexpensive, rugged semiconductor chips attached to, or embedded within, a given asset.

These chips require no batteries or wired connection to do their work – instead, they harvest their power from the radio-frequency (RF) signals that are used to read and write to them. Moreover, advances in chip technology and memory capacity allow products to carry much more data than just a digital serial number – including detailed information about the product, its chain of custody, and its usage and maintenance history.

The silicon architecture used in this type of chip allows it to last for decades even in the harshest of environmental conditions, and the distributed data platform both improves downstream business models (service, maintenance, upgrade activities, and operations), and strengthens relationships between an OEM and its end-customers.

Product lifecycle visibility challenge
Limited information can hamstring maintenance processes. At best, products and components today may carry a serial number, a barcode, or perhaps a digital ID tag, but they often exclude the finer details about the product’s specifications, configuration, maintenance history, and usage that are so central to efficient operation, maintenance, and even regulatory compliance in many industries. Instead, this information is typically kept on paper logs, in centralized Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) systems, or in some cases nestled within the “tribal knowledge” of an experienced workforce.

Each of these modus operandi is complicated, expensive to maintain, and has inherent limitations. Paper logs can get misplaced or become unreadable, and data within enterprise systems can erode during IT consolidation and upgrade cycles; worse yet, it can become inaccessible to workers in remote locations or at third-party maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) suppliers. “Tribal knowledge” is hard to pinpoint and the information is perpetually at risk due to workforce churn. The end result: In many situations, MRO workers are left at the mercy of incomplete or non-existent product history information.

Hidden costs
The costs of incomplete or missing product and maintenance history data can be significant. Examples include:

● Field or shop workers waste hours or days researching component history before starting maintenance work

● Unnecessary or premature component maintenance or replacement because history cannot be determined

● Work orders do not reflect new equipment configuration, resulting in delays in returning equipment to service

● Compliance with regulations cannot be validated, resulting in safety risk, business risk, and opening the door to fines

For many products, the costs of service, maintenance, replacement components, and upgrades over the part’s life cycle can be a larger than the original acquisition cost. Managing downstream activities efficiently is essential to product availability, product safety, and minimal total cost.

Extracting value from distributed data
The term “digital thread”is sometimes used to describe an integrated view of an asset’s data throughout its lifecycle. The digital thread is intended to deliver “the right information to the right place at the right time.” In a distributed asset intelligence scenario, “as-maintained” data always resides on the asset itself, thus providing an information platform for MRO to leverage.

“Smart assets” make detailed specification and configuration data available at the point of use to facilitate maintenance, precisely track compliance of life-limited parts, ensure the authenticity of parts to avoid counterfeits, confirm part performance, and even incorporate maintenance instructions into the part itself. The part tells the employee what needs to be done!

More importantly, data on each part can be updated with each service or inspection activity, and a permanent record of all entries gets maintained locally. Moreover, multiple data partitions requiring security credentials can be set up to ensure certain data is only selectively available to users based on pre-established rights and roles. Once it gathers data from the part, a local smartphone reader connects right back to the enterprise systems of the operator, OEM, or third-party maintenance provider, providing thorough visibility into how a part is used and its performance over time, and fueling better decision making for management.

In addition to storing lifecycle history data on the product itself, RF data chips can be configured to provide power to a sensor, and then record its data whenever the chip is interrogated with an RF signal. Typically, this activity would not be carried out to collect continuous real-time data, but rather to provide periodic trend data that could inform further maintenance decisions.

Subtle shift in mindset, from the “I” to the “T” in IoT
Much of this discussion probably sounds a lot like the refrain you’ve heard about transformational effects to come from the internet of things. But there’s a difference. Granting an asset with intelligence at its physical layer is a departure from typical Internet of Things (IoT) thinking that centers upon the “I” (or, connected) part of the IoT. In fact, the focus has likely skewed far too heavily toward promoting a need to connect everything with a sensor, all the time, and then streaming the information to the enterprise cloud. When you start having to account for the variables and infrastructure required for always-on connectivity, the value proposition for the IoT can become lost amidst a cloud of uncertain investment.

When the mindset is flipped toward putting readable, writeable data on assets themselves, however, not only do you remove the necessity for building a corporate-wide, networked software environment, but you open the door to improvements in workflow efficiency from unexpected places. When you really stop to think about it, distributing product data to the point of use by way of an otherwise dumb asset is analogous to opportunities that opened up when computing moved from mainframe systems, to distributed PCs, and finally to the mobile computing model that’s ubiquitous today. How useful was that flip phone of the mid-2000s as compared to the one in your pocket today?

Next-gen MRO in aerospace
Aerospace suppliers were the textbook early adopters of distributed smart asset technology. By tagging an airframe with thousands of high-memory passive RF tags, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have not only seen improvements in their assembly and delivery operations, but they’ve also empowered airline operator customers with a life-cycle data platform to support improved ongoing operation and maintenance operations. The day will come when every serialized, repairable, replaceable and maintainable part — numbering 10,000 on a typical airframe, will carry its own data.

Many aircraft components are bound by law to go through specific inspection and maintenance routines in order to be airworthy. The smart asset approach improves aircraft operators’ ability to manage these maintenance and inspection records. For example, when an airline reconfigures the cabin in response to a change in passenger demand for business class vs. coach seats on a given route, it can now digitally scan the cabin in a few minutes’ time to ensure all seats are conforming, that there is a life preserver for each seat, and that no components are expired.

Compared to the time it took to complete these manual inspections in the past, the process improvement is transformational. Moreover, when components are sent out for repair or overhaul, the configuration and history data on the part becomes instantly available to any third-party MRO, even if the plane is thousands of miles away. And finally, complete part history and maintenance records translate directly into greater residual value when the airline or leasing company decides to sell. The complete service record travels with the asset, embedded in the airframe’s components.

Putting asset intelligence in context
Rugged high-memory passive RF data chips (and sensors) enable next-generation MRO because a product’s birth data and its entire, granular life-cycle history becomes part of the product itself. This distributed data provides field or shop crews with complete product, configuration, and maintenance history, without depending on access to centralized systems, networks, or paper records. It also enables improved customer experiences, tighter OEM relationships with customers, lower life-cycle product costs, and improved product safety. The opportunity to fundamentally transform the almost $1 trillion dollar MRO market is here; it is now up to stakeholders to grab hold.

Bill Stevenson is an executive director at Tego Inc.

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