Case Study

Using Information Technology to Cut Maintenance and Logistics Costs

Published: February 6, 2001

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The first project of a new Georgia Institute of Technology research center is expected to cut more than $1 million a year from the cost of maintaining the U.S. Navy's fleet of P-3 Orion antisubmarine aircraft. Using state-of-the-art information technology, the center's objective is to reduce maintenance and logistics costs for aircraft, transit buses, emergency response units and other high value systems.

"We continue to discover new ways to lower the total costs of ownership," said Gisele Welch, director of the Logistics and Maintenance Applied Research Center (LandMARC) at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). "We intend to improve every aspect of logistics and maintenance using technology developed for other applications and integrating that technology into an open-architecture system."

LandMARC uses such technologies as sensors, hand-held diagnostics, wearable computers, genetic algorithms, CD-ROMs, Web portals and markup languages, radio frequency tags, airborne recording devices, mission planning software and intelligent tutoring for performance enhancements. The center has four major research areas: integrated logistics, supply chain management, system sustainment and predictive diagnostics.

Maintenance accounts for more than 60 percent of lifetime costs for complex military systems, noted Ron Wagner, a former Navy aviation maintenance officer and co-director of LandMARC. As these systems continue in active service much longer than their designers envisioned, maintenance becomes more difficult, costly and time consuming.

To address that issue for the P-3, Georgia Tech, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company and a team of small businesses are working together on a project aimed at cutting $1 million a year from maintenance costs by improving diagnostic techniques on the engine-driven compressor, the aircraft's single most costly repair item. Because the equipment is difficult to diagnose, more than 40 percent of the compressors replaced on the aircraft are not really defective. The cost of these unnecessary "false repairs" amounts to $4 million a year.

But by providing technicians with better information and intelligent tutoring to more accurately troubleshoot problems, members of the center expect to reduce unnecessary repairs by 25 percent, saving the Navy $1 million per year on that part alone.

A key facet of the P-3 project is an electronic performance support system (EPSS) that will integrate hand-held diagnostic equipment, electronic links to supply system computers, wearable computers for displaying repair manuals, computer-based training and airborne data collection equipment originally developed for electronic warfare testing. The open architecture design merges disparate databases into a single Web-based information portal for repair technicians.

"We are attacking the cost of labor by giving technicians better tools to reduce the time it takes to troubleshoot, fill out paperwork, repair a malfunctioning component, test it and put the aircraft back into service," Welch added. "If we can make better use of the technician's time, we can reduce the cost of maintaining these older aircraft."

Work at LandMARC benefits from 30 years of Georgia Tech experience with testing electronic warfare equipment, planning routes for military aircraft, making documentation available through portable learning systems, integrating different types of information systems and creating wireless networks. The center plans to put these proven systems to work in new ways.

One example is the Firefly Data Recorder, originally developed to collect data from radar warning receiver tests. In LandMARC's hands, the equipment will monitor performance of engines, compressors and other aircraft systems, giving maintenance technicians a comprehensive view of system performance at the conclusion of a flight.

Older aircraft are just one target for LandMARC researchers.

"Aircraft, buses, trains and industrial equipment have a lot in common from a maintenance standpoint," noted Gary O'Neill, a former aerospace engineering duty officer and also a co-director of LandMARC. "By using open-architecture existing tools, it's usually straightforward to adapt the data set and architecture to other applications."

From a telltale vibration, a maintenance monitoring system could warn of a failing bus transmission in time to avoid a breakdown. Analysis of repairs could allow a transit agency to reduce its parts inventory, stocking only those components likely to be needed.

One study showed that technicians spend as much as 40 percent of their time walking back and forth between the vehicle they're maintaining and the manuals housed at the technical center. Putting repair manuals online and making them accessible through portable computers would eliminate that wasted time and motion. These systems could also give technicians access to parts inventory information, and allow real-time consultation with engineering personnel at equipment manufacturers.

Information systems could also house the collective knowledge of many skilled technicians, making that expertise available to all and helping new personnel get up to speed faster.

"We are using the new information and communications technology to fuse information into a usable form and make it available at the repair point," Welch explained. "Improving the efficiency of maintenance and logistics is really an information technology issue -- how information is collected and distributed."

Drawing on resources from throughout Georgia Tech, the center will insert advanced technology into these aging systems. Undergraduate and graduate students from Georgia Tech's Schools of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Industrial and Systems Engineering and Literature, Culture and Communications -- as well as the College of Computing -- help create the vision for the open architecture.

"The center benefits from the students' enthusiasm and creativity while the students get to apply their knowledge to an existing problem," noted Welch. "This environment helps in student retention. These students and other researchers will be key to the new center's success."

Among the Georgia Tech groups involved are The Logistics Institute, the Center for Integrated Predictive Diagnostics, and five of GTRI's research laboratories.