It seems that several external influences are changing the way we think about Automated MRO Testing in today’s business models. The wave of challenges triggered by the recent global pandemic has led to lower throughput volumes, reduced testing staff, a loss of experienced senior operators, and a greater need for reduced costs. As a result, the way we look at the old manual processes in place for the past several years may be changing.
MRO test systems are generally stand-alone, manually-operated test stands which provide a controlled means to test and re-certify a product before it returns to use. These can be solely electrically based systems, may include hydraulics or pneumatics, or be a combination of these. In this discussion we will be concentrating on the possible advantages of automating the hydraulic and pneumatic aspects of testing.
Testing Volumes – Now and in the Future
With the current grounding of much of the US air fleet, we are seeing the corresponding reduction in the throughput of mission-critical components. While many industry experts believe the industry will slowly recover in 3-5 years, others believe that there will be an accelerated ramp-up as fleets are returned to service. The latter could lead to unprecedented MRO demands, as idled aircraft are re-certified and returned to service, resulting in the necessity for the rapid onboarding of multiple qualified technicians to meet demands.
Automation processes can quickly provide higher volumes with reduced operator intervention. With the use of an automated MRO system, test engineers can initiate flexible test sequences, subsystems, or connections to perform tests with greater accuracy and less involvement. Test stands that can test multiple UUT’s, or a greater range of components, can also reduce the amount of set-up and maintenance times, producing higher production rates.
This slow period presents the perfect opportunity to evaluate our past, current, and future processes and prepare for the return to normal whether in the short or long term.
The Shortage of Qualified Testing Resources
Several companies have experienced staff reductions through layoffs or early retirements of senior technicians, but what happens when the demand begins to rise once again?
A typical four-station MRO Test Stand
Many existing MRO test stands require the “finesse” of experienced operators. With the loss of this experience, and the training of new employees, comes longer testing times and increased errors.
This is because older stands typically utilize manually operated flow, pressure, and speed control valving, which require daily, if not hourly, adjustment.
So, what would happen if an unprecedented spike in testing demand collided with a reduced workforce of inexperienced operators attempting to run aging, buggy, labor-intensive MRO test stands that required tribal knowledge to operate?
Did you know that there is an alternative to janky, inconsistent, demanding, maintenance-hungry test stands? What if a single technician could run several tests in parallel and get accurate results with less experience and training required?
Automated MRO test offers short term capacity relief, long term supportability, as well as immediate quality gains by lowering individual test times, running simultaneous operations with fewer, less-experienced technicians, reducing daily operating costs, and increasing accuracy and repeatability.
The only interaction the operator has with an automated system is at the beginning when he or she places a Unit Under Test (UUT) into the system and connects hoses. All pressure, flow, and temperature settings, sequencing, and UUT actuation are done automatically. These systems also include integrated pressure transducers, thermocouples, fluid contamination sensors, and other sensors that quickly and dynamically identify component failures and provide feedback to the control system for setting and maintaining operational parameters.
Rather than relying on plastic coated, oil soaked, printed test sequences, WTI can provide Step-by-Step test instructions displayed on a 24” touch screen for easy to understand operator instructions. These include images or video illustrating which hose to connect to what port at setup as well as photographs or drawing representations during the testing process, which can be useful for tool changes or visual inspection. Written directions like “connect hose A to port XY, open Valve 265, adjust valve LB-4 to 523 psi” are replaced with multilevel, easy-to-understand visual sequences. This reduces not only the amount of head scratching time, but possible errors and the overall Takt time (full unit test time).
Reducing Overall Costs with the Automation Process
The reduced demand of MRO components has required companies to reevaluate their costs associated with testing and re-qualification. Automation can help.
Reduce your technician’s input time by as high as 90% and improve your test accuracy to a less than 1% error rate.
Automation helps to minimize potential risks that can result in costly component damage or operator safety hazards from manually intensive testing. These systems can also help operators more easily identify potential failure modes earlier in the process, as well as ensure compliant components free of defects. The addition of automated controls, modular fixturing, data acquisition, or simply updating system components can reduce your technician’s input time by as much as 90% and improve your error rate to below 1%.
Other Advantages of the Automation Process
Automated MRO systems cannot only control the UUT but provide a data acquisition (DAQ) system to digitally record high accuracy test results. The data collected is typically charted live to show performance and can identify when performance deviates from the predefined operational limits. Automated test stands provide the highest level of safety for operators and protection against potential costly user errors by eliminating direct operator interaction with the system and UUTs while tests are being performed.
Additionally, throughout the testing, all data is automatically recorded into the MRO test data report. This is a key feature of an automated system because the requirements for MRO reports in the aerospace industry are very specific and require exact duplication of format, font, and layout. Any variation in the generation or documentation of test results in the report can cause the UUT process to be rejected.
Automated test sequences can also include self-checks in software to ensure that the sequences are being followed. Real-time monitoring can provide a means to display Error Messages alerting the operator that a hose was connected improperly, an electrical connection has not been completed, or a test sequence has failed.
Common Questions in Today’s MRO Testing
While every company has its own challenges, the following are a few considerations when it comes to deciding if an automated test solution may be a fit for you:
- What would be the consequence if an operator made an error during testing? Some aerospace components are extremely expensive, and hands-on operator involvement can become costly.
- How complex is the MRO process you have to adhere to, and how much intervention is required from the operator to execute a test?
- How many parts are you testing per year and what is the throughput of your test station? The more parts you manually test, the more personnel you need to perform the manual tests, and the more manual test stations you may need. Additionally, if some tests take a significant amount of time to perform, you may have a fairly low throughput per test station and may require more stations (and manual operators). Automated stands can be deployed in multi-unit configurations in a single station or such that a single operator can run multiple stations. Either way, automated test stands allow more parts to be tested with less operators and less variability.
- How trained do you need your test station operators to be? As you require more skills from your test station operators, their required wages will typically increase.
Some additional considerations include test system repeatability (run to run), consistent documentation, the ability to digitally archive results, and increased accuracy (single run).
Are you frustrated by outdated equipment, worried about test coverage, or concerned about your bandwidth? Automation consistently produces accurate, timely, cost-effective outcomes over the long term. WTI develops turnkey systems that leverage off-the-shelf technologies for the aerospace industry and specializes in hydraulic test stand solutions.
Our engineers work with all sorts of specialty fluids common in the aerospace industry, including fire-resistant Skydrol and red oils, and develop test stands with operation pressures that exceed 20,000 psi. We understand that each component of an aircraft requires stringent testing and that proper documentation needs to be provided with each part. Additionally, WTI can develop automated solutions that handle multiple fluids and multiple components, thus reducing the overall number of stands and operators, the amount of required floor space, and test cost.
Contact WTI for Your System Evaluation
We offer data acquisition and control systems which are custom designed to your requirements.
Test systems can be engineered to be upgraded in “add-on” modules or phases. This way, the investment for a total system upgrade can be spread out over several budget cycles.
For more information on hydraulic simulations systems, contact WTI, a CertTech Company for an application evaluation today.