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The high cost of developing new equipment and the changing political climate between countries where lengthy procurement projects need a network of stakeholders to agree on a strategy, are all causing military organizations to increasingly look to extend the lifecycle of their aircraft. But life extension programs come with their own unique challenges when trying to keep projects on schedule, within budget and compliant with safety requirements. Here I pick out four common maintenance and support challenges military organizations face when executing a lifecycle extension program:

Tracking data – new and old

Airframe and avionics upgrades and fatigue life must be considered when assessing aircraft lifecycle extensions. Aircraft accrue a significant number of flying hours over years of use, and with the prospect adding even more, thorough fatigue life analysis is crucial.

Upgrade reviews are often the first step when analyzing extensions. They are complex and require the introduction of new measurements and components. This challenge must be met with effective data analysis and planning tools to ensure the safety and efficiency of upgrade projects, therefore proficient data collection and analytics are essential requirements of supporting software.

Fortunately, the capabilities of new software tools outstrip legacy platforms and they can now give operators the ability to track, assess and action the new information which stems from airframe modifications and fatigue life. In addition, it is important to remember that modern capabilities of instrumentation, simulation and computer monitoring have often been developed years after these aircraft have entered service and have an important role to play in extension projects.

An integrated approach is essential to trace, track and ensure quality of parts

Spare parts availability is key to keep lifecycle extension projects safe and on schedule. If the right parts aren’t available or in the correct place at the right time, it inevitably causes lengthy program delays.

Upgrades on older aircraft can be particularly challenging often because spare parts are no longer widely manufactured and are therefore very difficult to procure. This creates a need for creative sourcing and internal repair capabilities which can take up valuable time. The Quality Metal Additive Manufacturing (Quality MADE) program is spearheading cost-effective, on-demand production of 3D printed metal parts for use in MRO, but this triggers new questions regarding quality and safety.

Being aware of any lack of spare parts, knowing lead times and whether parts are safe to use is critical in gaining control and visibility of the supply chain for these programs. Access to reliability history to inform unscheduled demands is key, as is knowing the impact of delays.

For a lifecycle extension program to work, it must depend on an integrated approach, with a system that caters for the complexity of a supply chain to tie part demands into one place.

Risk of a skills gap highlights need to retain tribal knowledge

Military software systems do not typically support the retention of tribal knowledge, and as maintenance engineers retire, key maintenance processes are being lost. The development of solutions such as augmented reality have eased the burden—for example the IFS Applications on Microsoft HoloLens assists the real-time one-to-many knowledge transfers from experienced technicians to new recruits. Looking further ahead, supporting software must be created to hold tribal knowledge and ensure component history can be tracked. This generates a bank of maintenance knowledge and expertise that the next generation of engineers can use.

The need to execute a program while maintaining force capability

An upgrade on a fleet can take years, so planning is essential to ensure aircraft must be available for exercises and missions. Organizations must balance aircraft availability with overhaul demand and trips to the maintenance depot. If there is an increased demand for maintenance, it becomes more vital to ensure work is planned, scheduled and optimized.

In one organization IFS now works with, knowledge of when an aircraft would be returned to operational status was previously fed back to a Commander in the form of percentage of completion and a date estimate. This was based on talking to mechanics and tribal knowledge of individual aircraft. Since implementing IFS applications, the organization now standardizes documentation and digitizes maintenance work orders to measure the status of parts and task completion. This enables the Commander to accurately predict when aircraft will be available, and this level of visibility saves time, money and resources when tracking the performance of large-scale project upgrades.

A second wind for key assets
Fleet life extensions remain a key factor for military asset management, but the process must be well monitored and executed. I have highlighted here the key pain points to be tackled. Those who take ownership of programs with the correct approach to every project, supported by effective processes and software, will enhance efficiency, safety and force readiness—and give their military aircraft a new lease of life.

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