Maintenance of military assets continues to evolve, ambitiously using the latest procedures, tools and concepts to improve asset performance. Maximising asset availability without increasing costs will be a critical priority for defence forces in the future
Armed forces throughout the world are under pressure to ensure viable and up-to-date equipment capability in order to complete their missions. The provision and sustainment of equipment capability is vital to the success of any operation or campaign. At the same time, weapon systems are getting increasingly sophisticated, complex and interdependent, requiring intensive training, both for operation and maintenance. A significant shift in military affairs has been due to the impact of information technology. Advancements in IT, communications and GIS have resulted in a shift in the operational doctrine from platform centric warfare to network centric warfare, globally.
In an internet age, one of the latest and most important developments in this evolution is net-centric maintenance. By exploiting all available information, defence forces can achieve equipment availability targets with optimum repair cycle times and inherent equipment reliability, all at reduced cost, thereby maximising the buying power of maintenance funds.
What is Net-Centric Maintenance?
At its core, net-centric maintenance means seamlessly connecting the maintainer to a vast array of pertinent information that resides in a distributed set of authoritative data sources. Peculiarities of net-centric maintenance are:
- It is a two-way street. The maintainer is the most important source of life cycle data about the asset. There is thus, a need to collect information from the maintainer. The process of capturing this information can be automated, anytime.
- The types of information to be distributed are highly varied and stretch across the entire life cycle of an asset, from initial acquisition through sustainment. This information includes design and engineering data, acquisition and supply data, information on usage, maintenance history and warranties.
- The data should also include serialised asset management data, item unique identification, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and total asset visibility data, to execute precision maintenance, reduce inventories, target recalls when necessary, and ensure warranties are used.
- Distributed net-centric maintenance must also contain operational views of asset utilisation and warfighter capabilities and connect maintainers to these operational views. The maintainers who must either provide or have access to all this data include uniformed military staff, civilian government workers and the private industry partners that support assets.
- The captured data needs to be made available to subject matter experts in real-time so as to align the personnel who turn the wrenches with the personnel in engineering, depots, shops and elsewhere.
- Net-centricity also seeks to enable real- time connection to Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals (IETMs) and interactive training of maintainers. The aim is to provide the maintainers with multimedia presentations of best maintenance practices and to support this with visual aids. Today’s maintainers need to learn differently than maintainers from a generation ago. Instead of carts full of maintenance manuals and training materials, today’s maintainers will need to excel in a net-centric environment. They thrive in an interactive, multimedia environment and learn through gaming technology in which they compete with one another.
In order to exploit the benefits of net-centric maintenance, defence forces must ensure that authoritative data sources have accurate and up-to-date information. There is a need to make sure automatic identification technologies are used to their fullest extent practicable, in order to reduce the burden of data input and human errors. Net-centricity enables aggregation and automated maintenance analysis from many authoritative data sources. Analysis of data from multiple sources to support smart maintenance decisions has been the norm. The game-change is that net-centricity enables connection of this enormous amount of data with smart analytical tools that automate creation of information for maintainers and decision-makers.
Net-centric maintenance will enable maintenance organisations to shift from preventive maintenance concept to Condition- based Maintenance (CBM) and prognostics.
Challenges to Net-Centric Maintenance
An initial hurdle to net-centric maintenance will be alignment of, and a common framework for, acquisition and life cycle sustainment. There will be a need to develop policies, tools and guidelines under this common framework. The policies and guidelines should integrate a life cycle focus in acquisition and sustainment. In addition, sustainment key performance parameters and supporting key system attributes that require new acquisition systems should be available at target reliability and cost.
One of the major hurdles to net-centric maintenance is the reduction in sustainment budgets. Whenever the defence organisation buys capabilities under tight budget restraint, the first thing which is cut is sustainment, even though it may not be cost effective in the long term.
Execution of net-centric maintenance involves a host of specific and major challenges. These include installing digital data collectors and sensors, developing automated identification technologies like RFID and installing the infrastructure to get information into authoritative data sources and keep it up-to-date.
Finally, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and product life cycle management systems must be built or enhanced. This is a monumental challenge. A number of logistics organisations have already commenced work in these areas. Defence organisations may like to work with private sector to help with much of this execution work for productive partnerships and examples of industry best practices as private firms have plenty of experience in improving operations even in a financially stressed environment. And that is precisely the kind of environment that defence organisations will face as they further develop net-centric maintenance.
A large number of staff from defence organisations, from system engineering and sustainment field, still work in their own isolated environments. But they need to be connected to tactical maintenance as there is a need to have the right data in standard format so that product support data can be ported over to decision points in field maintenance. And then there must be vice versa, to get data on how items are used. Right now, these are still two camps, product support and tactical maintenance. Net-centric maintenance requires much more than just sharing data. There is a need to have the logic to apply data to problems and at the same time mechanics are not overloaded with data. Data must be grouped in sets to improve decisions on repair and get it to the decision point to ensure the availability of the right skills, tools and parts in mobile environments. Then you must have applications that support decisions.
Another major challenge of net-centric maintenance is using it in combat environment where mechanics have limited internet connectivity. Also, ensuring accuracy of data and avoid missing, invalid or duplicate entries. However, these challenges will be met when NCW systems are fully developed, matured and deployed.
Condition-Based Maintenance in a Deployed Environment
Net-centric maintenance will help Condition- Based Maintenance (CBM) become more widely used by the military and industry. CBM is an unremarkable name for an unremarkable concept — don’t fix what isn’t broken. But while this approach to equipment maintenance and sustainment sounds ordinary, it has an extraordinary impact on improving the maintenance cost and readiness posture of military assets.
CBM is the ultimate form of preventive maintenance. Using sophisticated sensors and data analysis, engineers can predict how long a piece of equipment or part will last, and schedule maintenance to take place at the optimal time, which is near the end of its life but before it fails. Sensors which measure vibration, temperature, pressure and other indicators are placed on crucial components of an equipment, collecting performance data as the component operates. The data is collected and analysed by engineers who can predict component failure and plan maintenance intervention. Already in use in the private sector, CBM has only recently been embraced by military. It is a critical new tool for doing ultimately less maintenance as information is available ahead of time, and that allows maintainers to be forward thinking.
A component has two points: beginning and an end. It is easy to define these points. The trick is to define where the system is placed at present, and the ability to predict the remaining useful life of the component, subsystems or whole system. Cost savings in replaced parts is another benefit of CBM. Traditionally, troubleshooting in machinery is done in a linear fashion. You start with part A, and then move to part B, and so on, until you find the problem. Time is critical in combat and we don’t always have time to work our way to part F, the problem, by replacing parts A through E, which were in working order. This is where CBM is effective. It allows part F, in this example, to be identified at the outset of the problem, saving time and unnecessary purchase of spare parts.
The ability to collect, store, correlate and move data is the limiting factor for CBM in a deployed environment. Bandwidth is the primary distinction between a deployed and non-deployed environment. The data that is collected at the battlefield has to leave the deployed environment and come back to static logistics environments. One can imagine the difficulty of moving a file through very thin bandwidth pipes.
Additionally, the ability to analyse massive amounts of data in real-time is a complex computing task. Application software has been developed which helps move the information generated for CBM. Smart enterprise platform application enables businesses to improve operational efficiencies, minimise risk and immediately see the impact of any individual event across an enterprise, identify event patterns and trends that represent opportunities or threats, and then provide analysis needed to automate instant actions. Large manufacturing enterprises are similar to military environments, in that both require tight rein on logistics and usually involve the collection of data from many locations. Industry has long recognised the multiple applications of CBM — reduce unnecessary repairs, improve readiness, look for process efficiencies and higher performance. In recent years, military has adopted what is called condition- based maintenance plus (CBM+), which reflects some of the changes taking place in the industry.
For the military, the ‘plus’ designation encompasses equipment and maintenance process improvements that occur because of maintenance planning and technology development for capturing, storing, analysing and communicating information. Changes in maintenance process and equipment are taking place because of this paradigm shift. Laptops and other portable computing devices are much more common now in a deployed environment for maintenance applications. With weapons systems and equipment available digitally, repair, replacement and part ordering can take place much more locally and immediately, reducing or eliminating the logistics tail that accompanies a deployed force. An unintended consequence of CBM may be that operators and maintainers are less practiced in performing routine maintenance operations.
Some of the principles guiding private sector tracking and managing of assets in storage or transit are:
- Proper tracking of assets ensures no build up of expensive safety margins against uncertain reserves.
- One can retrieve and move items faster and more economically by knowing exactly where each asset is, not only within the logistical system as a whole but within each warehouse.
- By automating the system for tracking and managing assets, one can produce better results with less labour and delays.
These principles are also being applied within the global supply chains that support the defence forces. In-transit visibility is also enabled by net-centric maintenance.
The logistics footprint in net-centric maintenance will need to ensure a more precise balance between ‘Just in Case’ and ‘Just in Time’ with a goal of ‘Just Enough.’ Developments in automatic identification technology integrated into GIS and interface with industry will enhance automated tracking of assets throughout the world.
Military logistics managers are also shifting to the more powerful tracking capabilities of RFID. They are modernising and integrating the software applications that turn tracked data into management tools. The advantages of RFID over bar codes include storage of more data, more precise location and easier reading of tags that, unlike bar codes, do not have to be correctly oriented to be accurately read. They provide better visibility and ensure that receipts are read faster so that filling back orders become faster.
A high speed logistics data network coupled with application software on GIS platform will provide not only in transit visibility in real-time but also total asset visibility. This will allow commanders to adjust re-supply operations while en route, determine supply and maintenance requirements, act appropriately before the critical time, and make the current distribution system truly responsive.
Another futuristic technology which is now being prototyped is voice technology. Voice technology will tell stock packers where to store new items and how to get there, and then will tell stocker pickers how to get to items for out-shipment.
Inventory control software that can be customised quickly to meet any new needs is also needed. It should be able to track the locations of items through multiple depots. Basically an inventory management tool, it does data collection. It should work with barcodes and RFID and should have functionalities for accounts payable, accounts receivable and a general ledger.
Benefits of Net-Centric Maintenance
- Potential gains from net-centric maintenance are huge. Net-centricity can enable CBM, which studies have shown can reduce total ownership costs by 25-30 percent.
- It enables use of unique identification tools to manage components that would add to these savings. Furthermore, on the outer edge, more sensors and intelligent agents can add even more savings.
- It results in reduced inventories thereby reducing logistics footprint and improves Teeth-to-Tail ratio.
In today’s military services, keeping major end items in mission capable condition has been a tremendous challenge in theatres of operation. Maintenance agencies of defence organisations strive hard to provide the engineering support to the equipments with an overriding constraint of massive budget reductions.
By exploiting all available technologies as highlighted in this article, defence forces can achieve material availability targets with optimum repair cycle times and inherent equipment reliability, all at reduced cost, so as to maximise the buying power of maintenance funds.