Thai Airways, under a new partnership with Airbus and backed by Thailand's Board of Investment, is investing in the use of drones, robots and predictive maintenance technologies for the creation of a new maintenance, repair and overhaul hub at U-Tapao Airport to capture future increased demand for aircraft services that will result from the ongoing growth of the Asia Pacific commercial airline fleet.
On May 6, 2019, Avionics International was one of several aerospace publications invited to experience a week-long tour providing an overview of Thailand's current aviation industry manufacturing and maintenance facilities and airports. The tour also featured presentations about investments being made to expand the MRO wing of Thai Airways and fulfill its goal of becoming a major provider of commercial airplane maintenance to Asia Pacific region carriers in the future.
Right now, Thai Airways is investing $181 million into construction and civil works and another $114 million into tooling and equipment that will bring new digital technologies and a major expansion of the existing MRO hangar located at U-Tapao Airport. The new facility will span 84 acres, and be capable of servicing up to 12 narrow body or five wide body aircraft simultaneously, according to Catipod Keadmonkong, deputy director of Thai Technical's aircraft MRO department.
During the media tour of U-Tapao, Thai Airways was celebrating that maintenance hangar's first completion of an Airbus A380 C-check. Due to the massive size of the A380, part of the hangar doors had to be cut to allow the aircraft to enter.
U-Tapao currently services 3.7 million passengers per year, a number that Thailand's government wants to grow more than fifteen times over, to up to 60 million passengers per year. The airport's increased capacity – and the availability of land nearby for expansion – is critical to the Thai government's ambitions in the MRO sector.
Thai Airways, AirAsia and others have maintenance facilities at Bangkok's oldest airport, Don Mueang, but no space is available there to increase capacity.
In June 2018, Airbus and Thai Airways signed an agreement to establish a new 50-50 joint venture MRO located at U-Tapao, for which the government has reserved space in the planned MRO center expansion. The ambitious project seeks to capture 20 percent of the regional market for commercial maintenance needs.
The new MRO facility at U-Tapao is expected to open for business in 2022, with a focus on widebody aircraft, according to Keadmonkong. The MRO will have the capacity to service the Airbus A380, A350, A330, and A320s, as well as Boeing 777, 787, 737 and 747 aircraft, for C- and D-level checks. The facility will also have a number of on-site workshops, including sheet metal, mechanical, passenger seat, plastics, fiberglass/plating, and painting and cleaning. Thai Technical is also looking to expand the use of predictive data analytics and smart technologies such as 3-D printing used as the facility as well.
Expansion at U-Tapao and how it will occur is reflective of industry forecasts about the Asia Pacific region published by Airbus, Boeing and industry groups such as the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) in recent years. According to Boeing's 2018 pilot and technical outlook, the Asia Pacific region will require a combined 799,000 new commercial airline pilots, technicians and cabin crew members between 2019 and 2038.
During that same period, IATA is forecasting that the number of routes to, from and within the Asia-Pacific region will grow by 4.8 percent annually to a market size of 3.9 billion passengers by 2037. Thailand is expected to add 116 million new passengers to carry a total of 214 passengers annually by 2037, entering the top 10 passenger markets in the world and bumping Italy from that list.
The Thai Airways-Airbus team also plans to integrate a number of advanced technologies into its new facility to improve efficiency, including Airbus' proprietary Skywise data platform. Arriving airplanes will be inspected using Air-Cobot and other autonomous vehicles to inspect the upper surfaces of the aircraft.
"For repetitive jobs, the robots are more consistent than people. People make more errors," said Keadmonkong.
A major goal for the flight operational side of Thai Airways coincides with the coming expansion of the MRO hangar at U-Tapao as well. Outside of the joint venture to expand the hangar's size and mix of smart technologies, Airbus has also been in discussion with the airline for the eventual full adoption of their Skywise big data and predictive analytics platform.
Some of that effort to adopt predictive maintenance will start with the acquisition of new aircraft designed to modernize the Thai Airways fleet, which currently sits at 82 aircraft. During a press conference on March 1, 2019, Thai Airways President Sumeth Damrongchaitham disclosed to reporters that airline suffered losses totaling $365 million in 2018, according to a report published by Bloomberg covering the event.
Much of the losses were attributable to the airline's aging fleet.
"Thai Airways is in a trap -- we have old aircraft that have endured heavy use and cause issues to operations," said Damrongchaitham. ""Many times we had to ground planes, do repairs, change flights."
That will change with the airline's plan to acquire 38 new aircraft, although no details on what type or model airplanes those will be have yet been disclosed.
During an interview following the tour, Ronnachai Wongchaoum, vice president of the MRO division of Thai Airways, told Avionics International that the addition of new aircraft will be key to transitioning the airline from its current reactive maintenance workflow to predictive maintenance operations.
"Today, we can maintain the health of our fleet, we've been doing that for more than 40 years. But the objective with the older generation of aircraft was safety only, there is a rather limited amount of data that they're able to generate. That's why we have to modernize and embrace the newer generation of aircraft," said Wongchaoum.
Wongchaoum, who said he is constantly in talks with representatives from Airbus discussing how they can become more digital, predictive maintenance-focused airline, sees the potential benefits of adopting Skywise. He said the introduction of more new generation aircraft such as the A350 and even the A380 – which was the first commercial airliner to feature a full duplex ethernet embedded network – will allow Thai Airways to digitize its maintenance information systems process.
Like many other carriers adopting predictive maintenance strategies, Wongchaoum's goals is for his MRO team to be able to track the health of their entire fleet in real time, primarily from the new hangar at U-Tapao when it becomes operational. Specifically, he wants Thai Airways technicians located at the various airports that they serve to be able to walk up to their aircraft with an iPad, download the necessary maintenance data and immediately transfer that back to their maintenance experts at U-Tapao.
Wongchaoum believes one of the key challenges for the airline will be their ability to combine the mechanical and technical engineering expertise of servicing aircraft that their existing workforce has with what he describes as the "iPad generation."
"Right now we're trying to develop a really digitally focused training system for young people, using the technologies they're used to. A lot of them are into coding or using the iPad applications, and it's our job to blend their fixation on those smart technologies with our existing knowledge of the mechanical systems and physically servicing our airplanes," said Wongchaoum.
"As the younger generation comes into our MRO organization, we know that people alone simply will not be enough," he said. "There's too many airplanes coming into the region's fleet, and that's why we're looking at how to use things like augmented reality to train them. We also want to make our servicing of the aircraft more digital and predictive, with work orders automatically generated so they already know what they need to do before they even get to the airplane." Augmented reality or not, Thai Airways will need to implement its plans for training personnel quickly. Just 30 percent of staff at the new U-Tapao facility will come from the existing hangar; the remaining 70 percent will be new employees, according to deputy director Keadmonkong.
And with the airline's plans to purchase dozens of new aircraft capable of interacting with digital, predictive maintenance technologies, the success of the joint venture MRO with Airbus may prove critical to Thai Airways' return to profitability.