Magic technology keeps the wheels turning

Magic technology keeps the wheels turning

Going way back to my early days in the industry I remember having a serious discussion with an educated mate who owned a Commodore 64 computer. We talked about how good it would be if we could have a computer guide young technicians via the knowledge of more experienced people and a structured troubleshooting “tree” that could be delivered by a modern computer. What a great and timely way to pass on acquired knowledge.

It was based on questions like “If this – then x ; if not then y.” Pretty basic stuff. And that was about the limit of a Commodore 64 with its data transfer rates around 0.000005Mb per second anyway.

We soon worked out that it really was impractical (no such thing as a laptop and no one had computers in the workplace) and we moved on to other things.

The idea however remained sound and thanks to the evolution of more capable computer platforms, computer driven diagnostics is now an everyday tool for today’s technicians (note they are no longer referred to as “mechanics”).

At Torquepower we are very familiar with the Cummins Insite software system which does just what we envisioned all those years ago but is a thousand times more capable than any of us could have ever imagined.

No longer bearing a shifter and screwdriver in the back pocket of his overalls, the modern technician now uses a laptop as a primary means of communicating with the engine. This diagnostic software interfaces with the on-board computer or Electronic Control Module (ECM) that manages all aspects of engine operation.

The ECM in turn can “multiplex” with the vehicle’s own computer to ensure that it makes its decisions in the vehicle’s overall best interests. The ECM collects data from a range of sensors located throughout the engine and vehicle systems. Based on that data, it is able to command changes to key performance and protection parameters for the engine.

When it sees a “problem” it logs the event by way of a Fault Code (FC) which includes a numeric value. That number can be retrieved by the driver via in-dash diagnostic switches or by the servicing workshop using Cummins Insite or a similar diagnostic computer system.

A recent development has seen mobile platform apps that can be freely downloaded from websites like Torquepower’s to give the driver a deeper understanding of just what the fault code means and what might be required to address it. More broadly, the codes are divided into two groups: Caution and Emergency. In some cases the ECM is set to protect the engine by a commanded engine shut-down when it encounters an Emergency level code for more than a few seconds.

Once the engine is in the workshop, the particular fault code is identified and the technician then uses the diagnostic fault tree such as Cummins Insite to track the fault back to a specific cause – which of course can then be addressed by traditional workshop means.

They say that, technologically, if you want to know where the trucking industry is headed, you take a look at the car industry – and if you want to know where that’s headed, you look at the aviation industry.

I recall visiting a RAAF facility some years ago where F/A18 maintenance was carried out. When the aircraft logged a non-emergency fault in flight it was delivered to the maintenance section (481 Sqn) once on the ground. The tech localized the fault to a removable “compartment” (looks like a wall of post office boxes under the aircraft’s forward skin).

They removed the box and installed a replacement unit meaning that the serviceability of the aircraft was reinstated in the shortest possible time. The box then went into another area of 481 where a card within the box was identified as faulty. The card was replaced and the box returned to “stock” as mission-ready. The card was sent to another area and a component of the card identified as faulty. The component was replaced in the card and the card becomes mission ready.

Expect to see this model as an integral part of the transport task at some time in the future. Expect also to see remote monitoring (and even adjustment) of the vehicle’s operation via transmissions from on-board computers via satellite. Again, this is already standard operating procedures within commercial aviation.

All of this magic technology will bring badly needed productivity gains to the industry because there’s no return on investment unless the wheels are turning.