Airplanes Are Fueled By Data

Digitization of MRO processes in action (Image credit: Lufthansa Technik)

Although the promise of big data insights into airplane performance is literally huge — a jet engine alone can throw off a half-terabyte of info each flight —Lufthansa Technik, the world’s largest commercial aircraft maintenance, repair & operations company (“MRO”), sees even bigger potential for correlating that with other data it collects if not uniquely, then at least more broadly and deeply.

“You need to understand not just engines, or wheels, but every aspect of a plane’s performance, whether in the sky, or on the ground,” explained Dr. Helge Sachs, Lufthansa Technik’s head of Corporate Innovation.

“We call it nose-to-tail insights.”

Lufthansa Technik is not alone in seeing the opportunities for not only condition monitoring, which has been around for years, but predictive maintenance (imagine landing gear announcing that it’s approaching need of a repair). It’s a short conceptual leap to insights that will provide real-time feedback to flight conduct, and forward-looking changes to parts design and manufacturing.

It’s no wonder that airplane manufacturers are selling contracts to airlines, in hopes of monetizing the underlying data, as are sub-contractors responsible for electronics components or those jet engines that produce data almost as well as they do thrust.

But to get to those integrated insights, as many as thousands of sensors on an airplane need to be accessed via a structure that resembles the Tower of Babel or, as Sachs calls it, a data lake. Thought GE’s forecast of Internet of Things connectivity by 2025 sounds something like Ray Kurzweil’s diary entry for his singularity, it has gotten many potential competitors to start thinking as would-be partners. Lufthansa Technik has met recently with GE in Silicon Valley, and is considering ways to collaborate, accordingly to Sachs.

It’s also doing things on its own, like working with small teams of data scientists in collaboration with Frankfurt Consulting Engineers, and partnering with small and mid-sized tech companies on ways to gather and use data found both onboard and off.

“Flying 600 planes [Lufthansa branded] and servicing 3,100 others lets us see not only the performance of parts, but the impacts of the processes around them,” Dr. Sachs said.

“Our experience is our differentiator, not necessarily the placement or acuity of sensors.”

For instance, correlating engine performance with forecasted weather conditions could yield better operational efficiencies, allow the right parts to be better allocated to airports, and enable ground crews to maximize staff scheduling. Such “sensing” of what happens to and around airplanes from the moment they land, to the instant they are once again aloft, is a lot more than data analytics of onboard sensors.

It also should enable a host of services, thereby carving a role for Lufthansa Technik separate from the OEM providers that want to sell parts.

“If we’re just metal bashing, or only doing maintenance, we’re out of business in the long term,” Sachs explained. “OEMs want to sell spare parts, not necessarily fix processes.”

“We’re working toward becoming a digitally-enabled services provider.”