The global aircraft Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) market was valued at USD $75.71 billion in 2018 according to Grandview Research and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 4.7% from 2019 – 2025. Whether carried out by OEMs or outsourced to aerospace Engineering Service Providers (ESPs), a significant amount of money is spent every year on MRO activities to ensure safety and airworthiness compliance.

The grounding of the 737 Boeing Max and growing pressure on capacity means that older aircraft and aircraft parts are in service longer in the short to mid-term. Industry analysts are calling for a steep increase in engine MRO demand over the next ten years, putting additional pressure on service providers for higher quality and improved throughput and underscoring the vital role of MRO.

With so much at stake, it is surprising to see that so many OEMS and ESPs are still primarily relying on highly-skilled manual labor for welding engine components when automated laser cladding has shown to provide higher yields and increased quality. To understand why this is, we set out to take a closer look at what it takes for companies to adopt automated laser cladding for MRO today.

To gain fair and impartial data, Optomec commissioned Mr. Terry VanderWert PE, a 40-year veteran in the laser process industry, to conduct an independent study and objective investigation into current MRO practices and challenges within the aviation industry. Our goal was to learn how service centers can take advantage of laser cladding and what impact it would have on their business.

While there is already a strong business case for repair – much of it is still done manually today. The cost of repairing high-value gas turbine engine (GTE) components is around 70% lower than that of purchasing new ones. However, the high difference in cost between new and repaired components has fostered tolerance for inefficient, labor-intensive manual repair processes. Even today, the main processes for repairing turbine engine components are manual. Among these, TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding, also known as gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW), is the most widely used for repair.

Our new white paper – titled: The Business Case for Automated Laser Cladding in Aviation Component Repair: Five Lessons Learned compares manual and automated processes for aviation MRO and analyzes how to make the best investment.

While TIG welding is the most widely used manual process for the repair of GTE components today, automated laser cladding is becoming an increasingly popular alternative.

Laser cladding is effectively a laser welding process in which a metal powder, or sometimes wire, feedstock is delivered into the focal point of a high-power laser beam. The resulting molten metal pool is moved under computer control as the feedstock rebuilds an existing component or creates a new part layer by layer. For GTE components, material is added to replace sections worn or damaged during operation of the engine. Compared to manual welding-based processes, automated laser cladding offers important benefits for GTE component repair including less overbuild due to the focused laser beam; less impact of the repair process on the part and improved performance of hardfacing alloy deposits – to name just a few.

An informal survey of users of automated laser cladding machines indicated that ‘Repair cost’ and ‘Financial return’ are the top factors in their selection of GTE repair equipment and processes. Automated laser cladding has the potential to significantly reduce repair costs and – as explained in this paper – the investment in this technology can also provide an attractive financial return. Mr. VanderWert shows how automated laser cladding can deliver an ROI of 184%, with a payback of 1.7 years. This was demonstrated through analysis of the business case for replacing manual TIG welding with automated laser cladding for repair of the Z-form of a low-pressure turbine (LPT) blade.

The productivity of automated laser cladding is impressive. However, the investment is as well. So, a big part of this paper is dedicated to determining what the business case is for this application. Investment in automated laser cladding for GTE repair was evaluated from data gathered from several maintenance suppliers and both current and potential users.

Automated laser cladding represents a serious investment. In addition to laying out the business case, the paper highlights the top five factors having the greatest impact on the financial return of automated laser cladding. To learn more about these five lessons and the details on the business case – download the white paper.

This paper will assist MRO facilities in creating a business case analysis to ensure investment in the right technology and equipment. It’s worth noting that in addition to the financial return and the key lessons learned, the benefits of automated repair processes include other less tangible measures such as: reduced turnaround time on repairs, reduced scrap, superior metallurgy and the potential for longer life of the repaired parts, faster order fulfillment, and greater machine utilization. The bottom line is that the value of automation will be unique to every business.