August 31, 2011
By Dan Namowitz
Harry Rittenour and Shep Whitcomb hope that the visual inspection devices developed by their company will do for GA aircraft care what they do in automotive, plumbing, and construction applications: create efficiency and reduce costs.
Their strategy is to learn what aircraft mechanics need from inspection devices, and then design accessories or modifications for their units that do the job.
Rittenour, a general aviation pilot and AOPA member, is president and CEO of Perceptron Inc. of Plymouth, Mich., a company that provides specialized measurement and inspection solutions through business units focused on industrial and commercial applications. In the automotive area, Perceptron’s inspection devices have been distributed since 2008 under the Snap-on Tool Company’s well known brand, through its dedicated sales force. Perceptron is also creating markets in the plumbing, electrical, and general construction industries.
The company is not an end-marketer, instead associating with partners in each channel, such as Snap-on, that can provide both a distribution network and a source of product development guidance. For example, Perceptron learned that in automotive work an inspection device becomes more capable if it has a head that can be equipped with a tiny ultraviolet light to detect leaking coolant, which would fluoresce under the UV beam.
The basic inspection device allows visual inspection. Others in the series take pictures or video stored on an SD card. The images can then be studied on a computer. After introduction of Perceptron’s first hand-held inspection device, several accessories were added, including a dual camera and new methods of manipulation. A smaller head size allowed inspection in tighter spots. Ideas came from user feedback.
The company says that the $300 to $900 price range of its series of devices is much lower than the cost of the medical endoscopes that have been adopted for aviation applications. The medical units work well but are, as Rittenour put it, “over-engineered” for aircraft maintenance and hard to maneuver in tight spots.
Shepherd Whitcomb, Perceptron’s global manager for the aeronautical and automotive market segments, said that field research—in which he participates directly—produced “quite a few different use cases presented to us by different segments of the aviation market.”
“We ask, ‘What do you deal with on a daily basis that you need simplified?’” Whitcomb said.
That’s not just the case in aviation. In late August, Whitcomb was about to travel to South Dakota to study the gearboxes of wind turbines to learn how better to apply Perceptron’s technology to wind farms.
Not only do mechanics know what works and what doesn’t in their field. Many mechanics must buy their own tools, so they are interested in increasing their productivity and holding down equipment costs, Rittenour said.
Warranty work is another area where the company sees potential efficiencies. Instead of waiting for approval from a manufacturer to remove a cylinder to inspect an engine for damage, a mechanic using a visual inspection device could capture an image and get approval to proceed with a repair, saving both time and money, he added.
Information-management capabilities are also a way to add value. With a new all-digital model that will enter the delivery chain this fall, a mechanic will be able to record still pictures or video as well as create an accompanying audio track. The file could be renamed so that it matches up with a work order or maintenance records, and a mechanic could insert a text note at the bottom of a visual image. Such technological capabilities are “critical for maintaining proper documentation,” Whitcomb said.
In at least one case, the FAA has accepted the use of a Perceptron device sold by Snap-on as an alternative method of compliance with an airworthiness directive requiring inspection for elevator spar cracks of some models in the Commander line of single-engine aircraft.
FAA approvals are sought by owners or user groups, not by Perceptron, Rittenour said.
As mechanics talk about their daily challenges, Perceptron hopes that each situation may offer the company an opportunity to offer a solution.
“Field research translates into a real product,” Whitcomb said.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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