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Technology trends in through-life engineering services

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Recent growth in the engineering services sector has prompted increased interest in technologies that keep equipment running smoothly

With the increasing popularity of performance- or availability-based contracts for high-value manufacturing equipment, manufacturers are looking to invest in increasing the life of components, reduce maintenance costs and maximise revenue. Complex engineering systems, from medical equipment, high-end cars and civil aircraft engines to defence equipment, offshore wind turbines and nuclear power plants, require continuous maintenance procedures throughout the product lifecycle to ensure that systems are kept running smoothly, ensuring optimal production and keeping costs down.

Through-life engineering services (TES) – those technical services necessary to guarantee continued performance of complex engineering systems – offer the opportunity to monitor and maintain high-value equipment, ensuring maximum operational life alongside optimum whole-life cost.

In the future we are likely to see a move away from traditional asset-based industry to a world where customers buy services, rather than goods. This is already happening in some industries, with most major car manufacturers now offering leasing and buy-back arrangements as well as outright ownership, but is likely to become more complex as time goes on. In this vision of the future economy, product-only providers will not exist in many technically complex fields, leading to a polarisation of manufacturing between the ‘throw-away’ and circular economies. Nobody and no company would buy major assets, and would instead pay for some kind of service or functionality, with the idea of products and services becoming inextricably intertwined.

This emerging model has come to be known as the ‘industrial product-service system’ and the phenomenon where the responsibility for maintenance of a product lies with the provider is called ‘servitisation’.

Adopting an ‘engineering for life’ approach provides several opportunities for manufacturers, especially within an industrial product-service system context, in terms of improving the design and production of products using in-service feedback. Such a system can lead to overall reduction of the through-life cost together with reduction in material consumption. In this way, TES for high-value products not only strives to achieve enhanced durability and reliability, but is also consistent with the European Commission’s ‘Closing the Loop’ action plan for the Circular Economy.

The recently published TES National Strategy has identified around 16.8 per cent or £275.2bn of the UK economy as attributable to sectors that could be influenced by engineering services. Of this at least 1.9 per cent or £31.6bn is potentially associated with the creation or application of through-life engineering services. Added to this, a recent report on UK service and support industry identifies the global market in ‘service and support’ across high value manufacturing sectors as £490bn today, growing to £710bn by 2025. This recent growth in the engineering services sector has drawn significant interest across manufacturing, construction and software industries towards the technologies that can help in delivering TES.

Key technologies that support TES can be classified as: non-destructive evaluation for degradation assessment, repair technologies, prognostics, self-healing and self-repair technologies, remote maintenance, digital maintenance-repair-overhaul, big data and visualisation of maintenance tasks for planning and training (for example using augmented reality).

Effective TES delivery depends on our understanding of the ways in which components and systems degrade over time, which can include fatigue, corrosion and > < delamination. Degradation is often modelled using accelerated life testing or based on analytical studies, assessment of which can be used when making decisions about maintenance or replacement. A quantitative assessment can be done using non-​destructive evaluation (NDE) and signal processing techniques including: visual inspection, dye penetrant inspection, magnetic particle inspection, ultrasonic testing, eddy current inspection, x-radiography, photoluminescence piezo-spectroscopy and thermography.

Although there are several techniques already used in assessing in-service degradation, thermography has become popular due to its ease of use and affordability. Automated repair is also a major trend to avoid human errors associated with the manual process, along with the repair of novel materials. As well as this, robot-guided reworking of functional areas and rapid manufacturing of spare parts is becoming popular. In this instance, the repair work beings with a cleaning phase, before the damaged areas are reconstructed using coating technologies or by additive manufacturing.

TES require modern capability in condition monitoring and prognostics. Model-based approaches to studying degradation and regular data capture using sensor networks can provide an indication of the current health and predict the remaining useful life of components and systems as a whole.

As different technologies emerge and progress we are seeing interesting new applications feeding into TES. This includes self-healing materials and technologies, which are influencing TES by bring in an element of autonomy. There are three prime examples of self-healing technologies currently under development: micro-electro-mechanical-systems, robots and fault-tolerant sensor systems. Of course, significant research is required to mature this field before it could be directly useful for engineering services.

Sometimes remote maintenance is essential because of the cost of disassembly, lack of access or the location. Successful remote maintenance requires data communication across the whole of a business’s extended enterprise, and mainly takes place at the level of accessing the health parameters of a machine remotely and performing software-based repair and upgrade tasks. Within this realm, we are also beginning to see a growing use of robots, both remotely controlled and autonomous.

To successfully implement TES across industry would require significant development in digital maintenance-repair-overhaul (MRO) using advanced IT solutions. The scientific challenge is to create a digital solution to provide all information, data and knowledge that is needed for MRO planning and execution. Big data and data analytics are increasingly playing a major role in TES as they provide predictive capability.

With the growing popularity of condition monitoring, prognostics, Internet of Things (IoT), Industry 4.0 and cloud computing, the volume of data available for TES decision making has increased significantly. Management of the data across long lifecycles and beyond is a major challenge in terms of governance, storage, access and supply-chain collaboration. Two major challenges will be reducing the data analysis time and visualisation.

In the future, TES needs to adapt to the dynamic and agile manufacturing environment based on Industry 4.0. Developments within the IoT and data analytics techniques are already beginning to support ‘smart maintenance’, but  develop­ment of full TES requires standardisation across IoT,  Industry 4.0 and big data analytics platforms. For example, TES for an IoT-enabled complex engineering system will require that IoT standards work with the existing standards for asset management such as PAS 55 and ISO 55000.

As with any new opportunities, though, there are bound to be some challenges along the way. With the new opportunities in a more connected world, TES also faces significant security challenges. Cyber security of the industrial product-service systems is a major topic of research at this time. There are three major areas of cyber security threats: aware execution layer (from sensors and actuators), data transport layer (from network architecture) and application control layer (from user data storage). These are areas that will be of key importance to future research and innovation within TES developments.

As well as this, with new TES technologies there is a need to develop novel business models and contractual frameworks between the manufacturers, their customers and the supply chain to share the risks of guaranteeing through-life performance. A stronger partnership between all these players will be essential in the future. The partnership must be supported by an internal organisational culture based on ‘engineering for life’ and servitisation.

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