This case study will look at how Rolls-Royce’s revolutionary new approach to aircraft engine product lifecycle management (PLM) is working in practice. Rolls-Royce’s Blue Data Thread digitalization program, powered by QOCO data handling, was covered in Aircraft IT Winter 2021/22 issue: now, in this case study, we’ll look at a real-world case where the system is being used by an airline. As always, we’ll first introduce the subject of this study, Neos Air.

Neos, established in 2001, is a small airline, part of a larger holding and fully owned by Alpitour Group, a leading travel operator in Italy. The core business is leisure flights with a fleet that consists of six Boeing 787-9, five 737-800 and four 737-8 aircraft.

New aircraft and engines need a new approach

Neos’s 787 Dreamliners are powered by Rolls-Royce Trent engines and, as part of the engine management plan implemented by the OEM to increase MTBSR (Mean Time Between Scheduled Repairs), they introduced a method called DAC (Direct Accumulation Count) of cycles for aircraft engine management. The purpose is to increase cyclic life by analytically determining how much of that life is consumed during each flight. The rationale behind it is that, during each flight, under typical conditions, the engine will consume a fraction of a full cycle. By accurately measuring that consumption it is possible to better determine the remaining safe life for the part rather than having to rely on rigid time driven calculations of remaining life. That more realistic measurement of actual wear for the parts and engines makes it possible to keep them on wing longer. The simple measurement used in old-fashioned lifing methods, is based on a worst-case scenario which might see parts removed well before their actual wear would justify that. In order to achieve optimum effectiveness, methodology such as that requires lots of information to be provided to Rolls-Royce, some of which will be coming from Neos’s MRO software AMOS which the airline has been using since 2004.

“By accurately measuring that consumption it is possible to better determine the remaining safe life for the part rather than having to rely on rigid time driven calculations of remaining life. ”

When Neos Air took delivery of its Rolls-Royce Trent powered 787s, in order to be able to measure the life and calculate the life expectancy of life-limited parts in each engine, Rolls-Royce first needed to build up a profile of Neos’s operation (phase one). For that they used data coming from the 787 with ACARS messaging using a downlink from the aircraft. A second set of telemetric data that was generated by each engine during the flight and downloaded by the maintenance crew after the aircraft had landed. The process continued for some months until Rolls-Royce had built a profile of Neos’s ways of using the engines. In phase two, the airline was able to declare that the DAC system was the executive method of lifing for these engines, in order to do which, it was necessary to go through several steps of approval which included the interfaces with AMOS, for Neos Air, and Rolls-Royce, through a third-party service provider which is QOCO.

QOCO’s founders already had the expertise from previous customer projects to deliver a data exchange solution between the operator’s M&E system and Rolls-Royce digital services. Neos collects data from AMOS and then delivers it to EngineData.io data exchange platform. This data is then available to Rolls-Royce who, in turn, provides data on the exact level of life consumed and remaining for each life-limited part (figure 1).

Figure 1

The QOCO solution

QOCO works with Rolls-Royce to support service delivery and to provide data capture and management components in the OEM’s Blue Data Thread as part of the digitalization of Rolls-Royce TotalCare. How the vendor usually works with an airline is that, during on-site visits, QOCO undertakes a project with the operator to thoroughly understand the processes and people behind the operator data and then sets-up the data exchange. When COVID-19 arrived, on-site visits were not possible and remote collaboration tools (such as Microsoft Teams) became the norm. The Neos Air implementation was the first one to be managed completely remotely, with no on-site presence for QOCO.

The first step is to have an implementation project for the data exchange in which QOCO works with the airline or operator through the different phases such as ‘discovery’, ‘definition’, ‘implementation’ and ‘roll-out’. QOCO aims to minimize the workload for the airline by utilizing existing services; for example, integrating into the airline’s existing M&E system and using its capabilities. In addition to minimizing the burden for the airline, QOCO uses the best fitting technology. They configure and deploy the required data pipelines between the airline and the EngineData.io platform utilizing existing data services and applicable technology, for example SFTP (Secured File Transfer Protocol) transfer or APIs (Application Programming Interface) depending on the airline’s capabilities.

Once the implementation phase is over, the next step is to go live with the data exchange and complete the handover to QOCO’s continuous services for data monitoring. The service also includes data quality controls that will notice if, for instance, there is a missing flight for one aircraft, and will trigger the system to contact the airline through Rolls-Royce to resolve any data issues. As the system is constantly reviewing the data, it will notice if there are any issues that require action.

With data exchange capabilities, Rolls-Royce can keep track on their assets used by different airlines and keep a digital copy of the engine. It is a huge benefit for the airline as they can keep the engine running safely on the wing for a longer time, enabling them to optimize operations.

There was no need for Neos to choose QOCO from a number of solution vendors, it was the only one able to provide this particular link between the airline and Rolls-Royce.

This has a particular impact with life limited parts (LLPs); the traditional approach is that the manufacturer, who doesn’t know how the airline will operate the engines, has to assume the worst which means that life limits are usually set according to worst operating conditions. With the data exchange, Rolls-Royce receives IoT (Internet of Things) data directly from the engines; QOCO provides the complementing data from the maintenance system which completes the picture. With that complete data set, Rolls-Royce is able to extend the use life of LLPs which, in turn, further supports longer safe operating times on wing for the engine. It also reduces unscheduled maintenance events which, as all airlines know, are costly in terms of both the financial consequences and the reputational damage they can cause. This more detailed and comprehensive picture of how the airline is operating the engine can also feed into a predictive maintenance process.

In all this, QOCO is the enabler; they don’t store the data but simply enable Rolls-Royce to provide the value adding services for the airline.

Training and working together

QOCO’s EngineData.io runs seamlessly in the background. But, of course, things do happen from time to time. There might be changes in the operator’s IT but, even if not notified, that will be picked up by the solution. If QOCO does not receive data or if the data is in any way unusual or corrupted, QOCO will notice and will contact the airline to resolve the issue. The only requirement from the airline’s IT perspective is that QOCO will typically need the help of the airline’s IT system administrators when it comes to setting up the required components for the data integration. QOCO, as a software business, has available expertise to work with the corresponding people from the airline’s side.

Impact of the COVID-19 on the project

Neos was affected by COVID in several aspects of the business. In this particular instance, since they had to deal with COVID anyway, it was not that difficult to keep working on the project, either by remote working through Zoom or directly in the office; when COVID started to spread in Italy in February 2020, Neos started working on this project and was able to proceed with it. There were times when Rolls-Royce also experienced COVID related problems and were sometimes unable to work remotely because of security issues, but mostly there were no issues in carrying through the phases of implementation. There was a phase when Neos had, for example, to carry out testing by sending specific data to a dedicated testing repository in Rolls-Royce; then there was another step where they had to send the same data for approval and for reliability to QOCO. Those phases did not need person-to-person meetings; they could go ahead with server-to-server connections. So, the project suffered no delays as a direct result of COVID.

Overall, Neos felt that QOCO provided the exact directions with control documents, revision levels and so on. They provided detailed instructions on how to use the system and the system itself is already a well-functioning data exchange platform. Data exchange is implemented in a way that the M&E system actively initiates the data transfers to and from EngineData.io service. So, with this system it is possible to set up a two-way communication with any other system while ensuring the necessary level of security with no connections coming from outside. There is a simple way to transfer data through an XML file which then must be structured in a way that QOCO has instructed. Neos had to refer to their own IT department for some steps that required scripts to be actioned or filed with the operating system of the server on which AMOS runs. However, apart from that, all Neos had to do in AMOS was to set up the structure of the XML to be transferred out or received.

The technical documents provided by QOCO are clear, correct and complete. One part of the technical documentation is about how to extract data from the maintenance and engineering system and how to import data to that system. The other part is that, during the discovery phase, both parties (airline and QOCO) agree on the technical architecture of the solution to set up how the data is actually exchanged — transferred between QOCO and the airline. Larger airlines will usually have an integration platform and QOCO can connect to that, while smaller airlines will use other processes with which QOCO can happily work. QOCO has its own toolbox with tools that it can utilize on such occasions to help the operator where the required services are not available.

Regulatory and Internal approvals

From QOCO’s point of view, approval is threefold. Rolls-Royce provides technical clearance to use the DAC (Direct Accumulation Count — for aircraft engine management purposes) system. Then the airline needs to approach the local aviation authority to get their approval. Finally, of course, there will be internal approvals at the airline. All three need to be in place. QOCO will support and provide documentation, but more often than not, further support is not necessary.

The system itself, the way in which Rolls-Royce proves the information is already approved by EASA. Rolls-Royce holds the EASA type certificate for the engine which means that EASA has approved this maintenance and engine management process so Neos simply had to amend its continuous airworthiness management process. By adding this particular process to measure the life of LLPs (Life Limited Parts), the benefit gained was to avoid the removal of an engine due to life expiration of LLPs based on cycles flown rather than life used. That was and is a huge benefit that Neos has derived together with, of course, the only other way they could have reached the same goal would have been by making a repetitive and frequent manual inputs to and extracts from AMOS of the necessary data.

With this automatic routine of the data being sent automatically from AMOS, and sent to the right place, as well as Neos also automatically putting that data into their own systems, the airline is able to avoid manual inputs and instructions which, in turn, removes the possibility of human error, leaving employees free to work on other projects and tasks.

The process has been approved by the Italian LAA without constraints due to EASA certification. Fortunately, approval of a dedicated AMP (Aircraft Maintenance Program) revision was less of a problem than it might have been due to the change being already EASA approved.

The system in practice

Integrated within the AMP (Aircraft Maintenance Program), LLP life is controlled with fractional data, i.e., data referring to that fraction of a flight consuming the LLP. Sending that data to the system allows users, in just a few months, to measure performances of all parts of the engine and how much of a component’s life has been consumed during any particular flight.

For Neos, this is not the only system to which they are sending data. In a very similar way, the airline is also sharing the same sort of data with Boeing for other maintenance related reasons such as reliability and AHM (Aircraft Health Monitoring). Using AMOS data is helping to improve operations. Once the data exchange structure is up and running, it works. AMOS was switched on at Neos in 2004 and has never gone down, it’s very reliable. In a similar manner, the airline wouldn’t have anything else other than what QOCO is doing. In the time Neos has been using QOCO, there have been a couple of changes in the way AMOS gets data from the database with the aim to have an optimized way for achieving that. QOCO is continually improving the data transfer method so that the system is continuously monitoring and fine tuning.

QOCO works with Rolls-Royce’s Blue Data Thread program using agreed data from different aspects of aircraft maintenance. Working with an airline, QOCO will jointly define the data scope for that specific case.

Future plans and next steps

The process of measuring and recording life used and remaining on LLPs does not yet cover all of the LLPs in an aircraft engine with Neos; so, there will be a progressive inclusion of other LLPs into the system and away from the traditional method of ‘one flight equals one cycle’. That will be reflected in a corresponding growing number of components that can continue safely on wing based on actual condition and not just cycles flown.

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