A tough economic climate coupled with the expectation for thousands of senior maintenance technicians to retire in the next few years is putting incredible pressure on the aerospace industry. The pace of business shows no signs of slowing, forcing many airlines to improve profitability as well as productivity. Aircraft maintainers play an increasingly critical role in helping airlines meet this goal by keeping aircraft safe, up-to-date, and in-service.
With this skill shortage looming, in-school and on-the-job training programs will need to be able to keep up with the demand to ensure new staff can walk into the big shoes they are expected to fill. Using interactive 3-dimensional (3-D) representations of equipment is one way to provide students with the ability to practice critical tasks such as the disassembly and assembly of aircraft engines, learn key maintenance procedures, and review the mechanics of engine parts in operation.
These equipment simulations, which can be displayed on a common desktop or laptop computer, are changing aircraft technician training programs. In North America both commercial and military aircraft maintenance programs are seeing an improvement in student knowledge and first-time-right performance.
The changing pace of learning
In our industry, it used to be that maintenance technicians learned most skills on the job logging endless hours working under the tutelage of more senior staff to gain practical hands-on experience. In an age where many had grown up working on a farm or under the hood of their dad’s car, the progression from changing the spark plugs in the driveway to checking the magneto ignition system of an aircraft seemed natural.
In the new millennia, this is not always the case for the students entering the workforce. Not only are aircraft considerably more complex than ever before, many apprentice technicians have grown up in urban areas and are more comfortable with a computer than with a wrench. For these students, who are often not familiar with common tools and the mechanical relationships between engine parts and subsystems, access to equipment is incredibly important. Unfortunately, budget constraints and increasing class sizes cannot provide round-the-clock access for students to examine and take apart engine models and often 20 or more students will crowd around an engine while an instructor points out the key parts and their functions. But, as the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) discovered, the fact that these students are more computer-savvy than mechanically inclined, proved to be an area of opportunity.
See engines in a new way
In BCIT’s engineering school, the Pratt & Whitney PT6A engine is core to its teaching. The PT6A turboprop engine is one of the most commonly used engines in the aerospace industry as it is known to be dependable and easy to operate. With 6,500 operators around the world using the PT6A engines and more than 36,000 engines produced, maintenance technicians can expect to encounter the engine in the field. At BCIT, the school has a limited number of PT6A engines for students to examine and practice key procedures on. But before hands-on practice can begin, students must have an intimate understanding of the engine parts and subsystems.
Instructors teaching the Aircraft Gas Turbine Technicians certificate and Aircraft Maintenance Engineer diploma courses at BCIT expect students to build a mental library of images of the PT6A engine. This library is the platform of knowledge that maintenance technicians need to be able to safely and efficiently strip and maintain an engine and put it back together again. One of the common challenges instructors at BCIT faced was to help students build this arsenal of knowledge. Courseware was often limited to 2-D line diagrams, videos, and photos explaining procedural steps. Access to the physical engine was limited and unavailable to students after classroom hours, limiting their ability to practice and improve their skills.
“Aircraft maintenance technicians don’t enter into this field to look at books, these are hands-on people interested in the operation and maintenance of a complex piece of equipment,” says Brian Hosier, director of media & technology services, Learning and Teaching Centre, BCIT. “We knew that if we were going to change our teaching program and provide our students with an industry-leading education, we would need a way to increase the practical time our students had with the engine.”
Capitalizing on their student’s affinity for computers and video games, BCIT decided to tap into the power of 3-D simulations to provide its students with a way to examine each part of the PT6A engine on a computer. To create a realistic, computer-generated model of the engine — which is so highly detailed that students can disassemble the engine right down to the last nut and bolt — BCIT used a unique software from NGRAIN called Producer to create 3-D equipment simulations that would be included in courseware and launched from the school’s Learning Management System.
The engine simulation was designed to depict the interrelationship between components, demonstrate common maintenance procedures, and evaluate each student’s knowledge. By providing students with access to the computer-based engine simulation, BCIT has now provided a way for students to review the steps in key procedures repeatedly and learn at a pace suited to their individual needs.
“Our initial evaluation of this method of teaching is showing very positive results,” says Hosier. “Students are spending more time with the virtual 3-D engines and more time reviewing the maintenance procedures they will need on the job. 3-D simulation allows our students to take advantage of the computer skills that are natural to them, increasing the proficiency in task performance.”
3-D on the job
For those of you already on the job, you’re probably thinking that you’re exempt from dealing with simulation in the workplace, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Like BCIT, aircraft manufacturers are discovering the many different applications that 3-D simulations can support. To help improve workflow for aircraft maintainers, Lockheed Martin is using simulations in its Autonomic Logistics information Systems (ALIS) software suite which ships with the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. Maintainers assessing the aircraft exterior for damage use a 3-D model of the F-35 on a ruggedized Panasonic Toughbook to detail and describe the areas for repair.
Corroborating BCIT’s initial findings of improved comprehension, Standard Aero is also harnessing the power of 3-D equipment simulation to deliver complex information and procedures in a quickly referenceable and easy-to-understand format for maintainers already in the field. Standard Aero designed an Advanced Electronic Interactive Technical Manual which includes 3-D equipment simulations for the Canadian Forces maintainers working on the T-56 engine used in the Lockheed Martin Hercules C-130 aircraft. Field tests conducted to evaluate the manual and the effectiveness of the 3-D simulations showed that it indeed met its intended purpose by improving the speed and quality of tasks performed. With this new approach to on-the-job support, the Canadian Forces were able to achieve a 25 percent reduction in time to completion and an equivalent increase in the accuracy of those tasks.
“Ten years ago instructors and students alike were skeptical of the value of 3-D simulations to deliver training and complex information,” says Paul Lindahl, chief executive officer, NGRAIN. “Now, that viewpoint has done an about-face. Instructors are finding that integrating virtual equipment into training programs accelerates student comprehension of complex topics and improves the efficiency of the training. 3-D simulations deliver information in an engaging and interactive manner, which promotes better understanding and improved job performance — even on the first try.”
The 3-D experience
Around the world, aircraft manufacturers and maintenance technician training programs are channeling the ability for 3-D simulations to communicate very complex information in an easy-to-understand way. With no signs of the industry slowing and new trainees entering the workforce, we can expect to see the continued adoption of these solutions in schools, by manufacturers in their training programs, and to support maintenance of operational aircraft.
Albert Einstein once said, “The only source of knowledge is experience,” and it is this very ideal that equipment simulations provide to aircraft maintenance technicians both in training and on the job. AMT