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What do airplanes and laptops have in common?

WARRENDALE, Pa., Sept. 27, 2012 - Two very different products, airplanes and laptops, actually have more in common than most people realize.

When you go to your neighborhood Apple store to get, say, the new MacBook Pro, one of the options you have is to download a copy of MS Officefor Mac directly from MS’s site, right then and there. It is a 10-minute operation, including your credit card being charged for it, and the installation is almost instantaneous.

The sales rep assisting you will connect your machine and the software immediately and, from then on, both Appleand Microsoftwill be your companions for years to come, with a constant hardware/software dialog, making sure your laptop works well when you need it.

In the commercial aviation business, a similar concept (also known as “hardware/software as a service”) is beginning to take place, with the potential to completely change how airlines, plane manufacturers and suppliers do business with each other. This shift also impacts how customers will experience flying in the future.

Technically, the concept is called Integrated Vehicle Health Management, or IHVM. Although quite complex in its implementation, IVHM is based on a simple idea: the more you know about the machine’s ability to function (its “health” so to speak), the quicker you can act to prevent malfunctioning.

The software in your laptop will flag a virus the same way very sophisticated sensors installed in airplanes will flag an engine problem or a failing landing gear, in advance enough that maintenance crews will know to fix it well before a flight is delayed, or even grounded altogether. In case of technical doubt, OEMs and suppliers’ specialists connected to a live grid will be available to service each and every airplane they build, in real time.

Compared to laptops, airplanes are much bigger machines with thousands of parts that have to work in absolute harmony. The amount of information the sensors can produce is staggering, and needs to be understood quickly and without hesitation.

That is when the IVHM technology comes into play. It makes sense of the data collected because it understands patterns, and compares them to the specifications guiding ideal performance. Mechanical or electronic failures are detected when they are incipient (very much in the beginning phase), but already deviating from how they should behave.

This creates an important window of opportunity for early preventive action. It could mean, for example, bringing a plane in for a maintenance session that was not yet scheduled, with the supplier already knowing which part should be at the shop before the maintainer starts working on the problem.

The goal is make that craft available for flying much quicker than if the malfunction had been detected later in the game, possibly having left over 200 angry passengers stranded in an airport.

When an industry as globalized and diverse as the commercial aviation faces deep changes, a lot of time is spent on making sure the advantages of doing things differently are really there. Not only work has to be done on new regulation compliance, but also on the economic side of things. These changes require significant investments in technology and staff training: a solid business case has to be made to support them. 

This is especially hard when you have to figure out not how much, say, a breakdown costs when it happens, but also how much preventing the breakdown from happening actually means in terms of savings.

The new title developed by SAE International, Integrated Vehicle Health Management: Business Case Theory and Practice, brings together the expertise of 12 different authors from the industry and academia, and the real-life experience of 8 organizations that are actively working in the business (Airbus, The Boeing Company, Embraer, Hamilton Sundstrand, India National Aerospace Laboratories, Meggitt PLC, the US Army and Gulfstream).

It covers the rationale behind the gamut of possible scenarios and how to evaluate, in business terms, what solution makes more economic sense. It helps the reader understand the impact of value chains on costs, the different models available to calculate return on investments, how to realistically weigh alternatives and their consequences, and how maintenance of high-value assets (such as airplanes) is a vital aspect of managing the productive life of complex machines.

The book was developed with the intention to provide and easy-to-understand and easy-to-follow process, useful to business people, economists and engineers alike. They are the ones responsible for making (or not) decisions that will make a real difference to their organizations, for a long time.

It was also developed to complement the first title published a year ago, Integrated Vehicle Health Management: Perspectives on an Emerging Field, which focused on defining and explaining the basic concepts used in this new technological frontier.