Building an aircraft is a highly complex process. Even more so today, when large aeronautical programmes are sponsored by international alliances and backed by public funds. This means that there are political and labour decisions, apart from technical decisions, behind the construction of an aeronautical manufacturing plant.
New tools to make processes progressively safer, more reliable and less costly.
Consequently, it is common to find facilities spread out geographically across different regions or countries, in which one part of the aircraft is manufactured at each plant. All the parts are subsequently transferred to the final assembly line (FAL) to be assembled together, like in a jigsaw puzzle.
During each part’s construction process, those responsible for it have to validate and check each piece of equipment, wire, piping etc. that is assembled onto it before the part is sent to the FAL. Once there, the parts have to be assembled onto other parts, systems interconnected and new equipment installed.
Each step of the assembly process requires the validation of the systems affected. Not so long ago, the checks were done by hand by checking the wiring’s continuity, that the equipment was operational and the tightness of the piping and tanks.
Many of these operations are still done by hand, though the technology available today makes it possible to automate the majority of these tests, thereby ensuring their reliability, repeatability and traceability.
Reliability: By doing away with the human factor in some checks and using sensors to measure certain parameters, we can ensure the accuracy of measurements and the absence of errors when recording the results.
Repeatability: When a test is automated, it can be ensured that it can be repeated as many times as may be needed under the same conditions.
Traceability: Automated data processing allows information to be recorded in databases. This makes it possible for the results, incidents during the test, the worker who conducted the test, the engineer who designed it, the aeroplanes it was conducted on, etc. to be subsequently queried.
The greatest value provided by all this information, however, comes from its processing through data mining techniques. Suitably applying these techniques can firstly provide statistics which allow one to identify the most repetitive or costly incidents, assess mitigation plans for those failures or enhance processes, among other things. Moreover, they can also be used to predict errors and optimise testing equipment and tool maintenance. This generates considerable quality-related cost savings.
The next step in the area of functional testing in aeronautical environments involves the “Internet of Things” by interconnecting elements which allow the tests to be self‑managed and failure reports that warn about problems to be sent autonomously in real time.
This may require several things:
- Firstly, having a standard to verify aircraft systems: a common language through which verification systems and the systems to be validated understand each other, and which allows the tests’ framework to be defined, such as initial conditions, stimulus and response.
- Secondly, developing the tests by taking into account that each aeroplane’s specific equipment varies from one unit to the next (like in cars, there are “versions” which include more or less equipment).
- Lastly, having available the processes and infrastructure that allow one to manage and keep all this information.
These innovations evidently do not apply to all of an aeroplane’s elements, and many of the tests that have to be done require human intervention. As a matter of fact, the aim is not to replace humans — whose professional criteria will always be one step ahead — but rather to assist them and provide new tools so that processes become progressively safer, more reliable and less costly.
Though the evolution of technology in the aeronautical industry goes at a much slower pace than in other industries, we can affirm that there are yet more technology revolutions to come and that, fortunately enough, we are undergoing a constant challenge to improve what we build and make it more reliable. When we are talking about flying, there can be no doubt whatsoever that this is always a top priority.