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Monday, September 1, 2008

Fleet Management: Making TBOs Things of the Past

James T. McKenna

Compelled by current and anticipated customer demands for lower operating costs, Turbomeca is working on eliminating the need for TBOs for its engines.

Turbomeca is developing a system to provide near real-time tracking of engine performance and configuration for its entire range of products within a decade.

The engine maker has been working on means of tracking and recording the performance of critical components since 2005, and expects all new engines delivered after 2009 will be fitted with the devices necessary to do that.

It anticipates winning customer support for the added cost and complexity of such a system by promising operators a verifiable record of performance and maintenance unique to an individual engine. Armed with such accurate and specific data, Turbomeca plans to be able to persuade aviation regulators that engines can be maintained and inspected based on their actual conditions instead of the dictates of conservative engineering estimates built on worst-case assumptions about an engine’s use through its life. Envisioning a system of maintenance customized for an individual engine, Serge Maille, Turbomeca’s commercial and technical support vice president, said, "We think that the authorities will be more confident with such a system because we’re able to record the real life of the engine. We can imagine in the future we can forget the notion of the TBO." Engine maintenance "will be on condition."

The manufacturer also sees significant safety benefits of the system in the form of added barriers against human error in engine maintenance. An automated tracking systems, for instance, would eliminate the need for a mechanic to manually enter the time since overhaul of a part installed on an engine (and the risk of that data being entered incorrectly).

Turbomeca has undertaken the initiative as a lead player in a European project to develop such capabilities for a variety of transportation modes. That project is called System for Mobile Maintenance Accessible in Real Time, or SMMART.

The timing is somewhat remarkable. Turbomeca is undertaking a major ramp-up of new-engine production to meet projected demand for helicopters. It is building a modern production facility at its main site in Pau, France. It has opened a new parts-production facility in Monroe, N.C. to satisfy the requirements of the U.S. Army’s 322 UH-72As based on the Arriel 1E2-powered Eurocopter EC145. It also has undertaken a major improvement to its customer support program.

In short, Turbomeca has more than enough on its plate. But top management has decided the company cannot put off upgrading its fleet-tracking capabilities.

"If we don’t do it now, it’s too late," Maille said. "We have to be ready. We know the market will increase. If we have to do investment, this is the time. After is too late."

The SMMART integrated R&D project was launched in November 2005, with plans for it to run through this year. With an overall budget of around €25 million ($37 million), SMMART is partly co-funded by the European Commission under the FP6 joint IST (Information Society Technologies) and NMP (Nanotechnologies and nanosciences, knowledge-based multifunctional materials and new production processes and devices) priority.

Coordinated by Turbomeca, the project involves a consortium of 24 partners from the air, maritime, rail and road transportation sectors and computer, sensor, manufacturing and nuclear industries, as well as academia.

SMMART is based on the implementation of new technology smart "tags" that can operate and communicate wirelessly within the harsh environment of an engine.

Turbomeca validated this concept and launched work on its Arriel 2 engine in 2006. Engineers began designing the smart-tag system in April 2007 and have finalized the specifications for it.

The information collected from the tags would be fed to a concentrator, or electronic engine logbook. It also would capture data from the engine’s full-authority digital engine controller, the aircraft’s health and usage monitoring systems and any other recorder on the aircraft, Maille said. "So we are able to capture all the data in the field."

All that data would be downloaded and sent directly to the central database, "If you go to a [Turbomeca] Turbo Service Center, you will be able to get the information" from that central database, he said. "If the engine is sent from the Turbo Service Center to the repair center, the repair center will get the information."

One function of the central database would be to verify the information coming in on each engine. "Anytime we check the technical configuration of an engine, we will check the consistency of the information we get from the central database," he said. "So we are sure that a part number is consistent with the TBO we have for it."

That should help reduce maintenance-related accidents. "You minimize the risk by the fact that you have no human intervention," Maille said. "Sometimes we discover that we have some modules that are coming in here on which the TBO is 3,000 hr, but the module flew, in fact, for 6,000 hr because some guy put the wrong information in the system. It’s amazing."

"The target is to complete and have the first application in 2009," Maille said, and then deploy it on all Turbomeca engines.

Turbomeca plans to also retrofit all 10,000 or so of its engines in the field with the system. "The deployment of this system will be finished for all Turbomeca engines at the end of 2017," Maille said. "This is the target date."

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