More than 300 members of the global aviation industry attended the 2017 Aero-Engines Americas Conference at the Grand Hyatt on Feb.2, 2017.
More than 300 members of the global aviation industry attended the 2017 Aero-Engines Americas Conference at the Grand Hyatt on Feb.2, 2017. Credit: Courtesy / Port San Antonio

Technology is changing the aviation industry at the speed of sound. To better understand these changes and their impact, attendees from aviation industries across the globe united Thursday at the aircraft engine maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) industry conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel.

Port San Antonio was the presenting sponsor for the 2017 Aero-Engines Americas Conference, Analyzing the Shifting Dynamics of the Engine MRO Industry.

The all-day program hosted around 300 international airline operators and leading industry experts, who listened to speakers discuss how technical innovations are shaping the regional and global markets for aircraft MRO services.

“This is the largest attendance ever in the history of the conference,” said Jim Perschbach, Port San Antonio executive vice president for business development. “We have participants from places as far flung as Ethiopia, Pakistan, Portugal, and Germany.”

Dan Gonzales, who began his career as an engineer at Kelly Air Force Base and is now vice president for business development at Standard Aero, said he was not surprised by the turnout at this year’s conference.

“The Port’s sponsoring of this conference has helped highlight San Antonio, and the Port especially, as a center of gravity for the aviation industry,” Gonzales told the Rivard Report. “The infrastructure, resources, and skilled work force positions us well to leverage opportunities for continued growth.”

Jim Perschbach, executive VP of business development at Port San Antonio, speaks at the 2017 Aero-Engines Americas Conference at the Grand Hyatt on Feb.2, 2017.
Jim Perschbach, executive VP of business development at Port San Antonio, speaks at the 2017 Aero-Engines Americas Conference at the Grand Hyatt on Feb.2, 2017. Credit: Courtesy / Port San Antonio

Perschbach’s remarks echoed the sentiment that San Antonio and the Port should expect both challenges and opportunities in the future.

“The focus of work done now is on aging air frames,” Perschbach said. “That requires continued innovation, such as the work Elevate Systems does, which reverse-engineers and 3D-prints out-of-production airplane parts for the Department of Defense.”

San Antonio, and the Port in particular, has positioned itself as an industry leader by leveraging its strengths in technology, cybersecurity, aviation, and advanced manufacturing sectors, especially because effective integration of those areas furthers innovation in engine MRO operations and processes.

René Dominguez, director of the City’s Economic Development Department, told the Rivard Report that proactive support will help the Port assert itself as a center for excellence in the aviation industry.

“We are well positioned, primarily because of Port San Antonio and its historical role in aviation with Kelly Air Force Base,” Dominguez said. “The potential of the Port’s 400 acres [that have] yet to be developed is promising.”

Dominguez stressed the potential benefits of private sector partners like Boeing collaborating with applied research partners like Southwest Research Institute or UTSA and the IT community to provide value added solutions.

“This will support the Port as it continues to evolve from providing military MRO to focusing more on commercial MRO services,” he said. “With existing workforce development programs like [those at] Alamo Academies, we also need to push for new programs to help workers gain certifications for advanced avionics repair, to maintain our position in a competitive industry.”

‘Smart Planes’ Drive Aviation Industry Trends

“With one terabyte of data being created by a plane’s engine on every flight, big data analytics will also be a critical part of managing engine MRO in aviation,” Perschbach said.

The newest aircrafts to take to the skies, from Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner to Airbus’ A350 wide-body jet, are even more connected than the passengers they carry. According to Airbus, even its A380 superjumbo – which first flew a decade ago – collects information on more than 200,000 aspects of every flight.

The growth in “smart aircraft” is an important factor in the continued growth of the aero-engine MRO industry, according to Richard Brown, principal for ICF.

The global MRO market is expected to grow by 4.1% annually to more than $100 billion by 2026. A subset of that market, the engine MRO sector – currently valued at $27 billion – is forecasted to reach $42 billion by 2025.

Maintaining aging air frames and leveraging emerging technologies drive development in the MRO market. One key issue for engine MRO operations is the need to manage customer needs as airplane engines age over their life cycle.

Engine maintenance operations are maintained on digital analytics platforms and generate terabytes of data. Control of that operational data is critical to success, as it provides feedback on how to optimize performance, design, and reliability for plane engines.

Optimizing the growing convergence of MRO, technology, and data analytics is critical to successfully managing parts choice and aftermarket designs, leveraging big data, reducing operator costs, and increasing efficiency and reliability.

Rolls-Royce, the world’s second-biggest aero-engine maker, was one of the first in the industry to use data generated by its engines for innovation. Instead of focusing on revenue from sales of the turbines itself, Rolls-Royce offered its customers the opportunity to buy an MRO package based on the number of hours its engines kept an aircraft flying.

The future of the aero-engine MRO sector will focus on providing airlines with the most reliable aircraft. Many aviation industry discussions now center on what adds the most value to MRO operational support for airlines, such as the implementation of technologies and big data analytic solutions.

“Today, the average life cycle of an airplane engine is up to 50 years,” said Christoph Heck, vice president for sales in the Americas at MTU Maintenance.

Jet engines generate big data sets for predictive maintenance, which drives tech innovation in the operations of MRO service providers.

Lufthansa Technik (LHT), for example, is blending digital analytics with its engineering expertise to make MRO work more predictive for its clients.

Thus, the industry is increasingly moving to meet the aviation industry’s demand for enhanced and prolonged engine servicing. Rather than outsource, MRO providers are trying to keep everything in house, including MRO big data management.

The aviation industry also is experiencing an evolution in the roles of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and maintenance, repair, and overhaul providers (MROs) in the aftermarket.

Airlines are increasingly asking for aftermarket services, partly because OEMs have the intellectual property to drive high reliability rates for engine parts and are held accountable for achieving them.

However with the growth of 3D printing for out-of-production engine parts and precision metal injected parts, there is a balance to be struck between OEMs and MROs. That balance is in constant flux as companies on both sides of the aviation industry strike cooperative relationships to provide customers maximum value in MRO services.

Elevate Systems, which reverse-engineers and 3D-prints out-of-production airplane parts for the Department of Defense, and the Port-based Indo-MIN, which manufactures precision metal-injected plane parts, support the aviation MRO sector in San Antonio.

As the conference comes to a close, the global audience and in-depth discussions on industry trends are sure to include San Antonio, and particularly Port San Antonio as a world class center of excellence in the MRO subsector.

Iris Gonzalez

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science, and veteran affairs. She won the Texas Veterans Commission Media Excellence Awards for her 2016 Veterans Day story "Life as a Veteran: What Veterans...