A fusion of economic, environmental and revenue drivers has made through-life engineering services arguably the most important branch of engineering in 2015. Will Stirling meets the experts who explain why.
High value manufacturing companies are increasingly offering through-life support for their products and guaranteeing their performance.
It is well-known that in the aerospace and defence sectors, over half the revenue is coming from such through-life engineering services (TES) and it is growing. Other sectors, such as rail, energy and machine tools have also recognised this potential and are striving to create revenue from servicing the product.
For example, DMG Mori Seiki and hydrogen energy company Intelligent Energy have recently joined the EPSRC Centre for Through-Life Engineering Services
TES provides a nice fusion of several drivers that are reshaping industry. Efficiency, as companies waste millions in removing and servicing perfectly good parts – so called no fault found – can be improved with better monitoring, as fewer parts are changed. The environment benefits from this. And companies create new, repetitive revenues by charging for whole life servicing of parts.
The 3rd annual International Conference on Through-Life Engineering Services brought together 120 through-life engineering practitioners from industry and academia to cross-pollinate knowledge and ideas and debate future advances and challenges of the TES in industry.
The Manufacturer looks at two of the TES disciplines examined at the conference that point to the future role of TES in life cycle engineering and the circular economy.
Advanced technologies in life cycle engineering
Maintenance processes for long-living and cost-intensive products (e.g. trains, airplanes, machine tools) are getting more complex, partly due to the increasing integration of electronic components. Long term serviceability for electronics cannot be guaranteed in many cases, because the integrated electronic components have a shorter lifecycle compared to the long-living products they are integrated into.
Numerous hardly predictable breakdown possibilities complicate the process of maintaining long-living products. Also, when a new maintenance contractor wins a contract, they often find it difficult to obtain the electronics schematics.
Prof Rainer Stark and colleagues at the Fraunhofer IPK in Berlin were approached by industry to solve this problem.
They used 3D scanning and computer tomography techniques to create a detailed picture of the printed circuit boards (PCBs). Stark et al went through rigorous metrological processes to render high resolution and distortion-free images images of the PCBs internal structure (see diagram).
Six months from the study’s conclusion, Stark’s team are showing that these advanced techniques can help to ‘reverse-engineer’ PCBs so that maintenance contractors know when to replace them, and what with. It eliminates costly data retrieval and provision between OEM, customer and service provider.
Data provision is key here and a theme throughout the TES conference. Data flow modes are essential to make the connection. “Our future role should be explore industrial solutions to eliminate a lot of [data retrieval] problems so we have a better functioning environment for longer living products.”
Stuart Broadbent, from Alstom Transport, pointed out the reverse engineering is clever but the material improvement will be in the willingness to share original data.
“We develop expensive processes such as reverse engineering of electronic printed circuit boards, which in a sense only incentivises the OEM to make them a more complicated and more difficult to decode,” he says. The real change in TES could be cultural and behavioural, more than technical.
Maintenance services for promoting sustainability
The research of Prof Benoit Iung of CRAN at Lorraine University holds that, in modern manufacturing processes, opportunities to increase efficiency still exist, but the gains are largely incremental and insufficient to generate real competitive advantage or differentiation. Lean has come as far as it can, some might say.
In reaction, some business leaders are moving towards an industrial model that decouples revenues from material input by promoting real sustainability and then the circular economy, as opposed to the linear economy (mine, manufacture, consume, bury).
Therefore, industrial enterprises, and more precisely manufacturing ones, seek to integrate environment into their strategy by conducting an innovative rationalisation of production as promoted by industrial ecology.
Prof Iung et al investigated the role of maintenance to contribute to the development of these paradigms.
Usually, maintenance is defined as a combination of all technical, administrative and managerial actions during the life cycle of an item intended to retain it in, or restore it to, a state in which it can perform the required function.
But most people focus more on the restoring or replacing meaning, and think that the role of maintenance is ‘to fix things when they break’, but the professional view is that when things break down maintenance has failed (i.e all maintenance should be predictive maintenance).
This has led to a negative image of maintenance, to be recognised as a cost and only limited to the production phase. Nevertheless, due to the necessity now to optimise the costs (the costs for the maintenance is much higher than the acquisition and operation costs), the role of maintenance is changing as underlined by  through the vision of life cycle maintenance.
Prof Iung et al.’s paper concluded that maintenance is now considered no longer as an aftermarket service needed for product (or system) functionality but rather really an inherent service function of the product (system).
It has led to some existing maintenance services/processes contributing to the industrial ecosystem, such as those related to “green maintenance” requirements or TPM philosophy, but has also proposed innovative directions such as those related to a regeneration/restorative health management strategy or integrated energy management approach.
Perfect development space for big data
A big theme at TES Conference 2014 was data access and manipulation across many complicated systems. TES both requires and creates big data to make it work properly and, as Prof Andrew Starr of Cranfield University points out, this is “everybody’s 2015 problem: we have shed loads of data but what do we do with it all? Autonomous decision making for handling data remains a challenge; it’s not simple to get it robust.”
Conversely, if TES can help to fine tune methods of autonomous data handling, the rewards will be vast. TES will be a commercial spur to help engineers to perfect software and protocols in the Internet of Things.