Necessity is truly the mother of invention, and great software ideas are driven from specific needs. Such was the case for a Fortune 500 aircraft engine manufacturer that decided to automate the quality assurance of parts.
Aircraft engines require extensive and thorough testing to ensure quality and safety during flight.
The company initiated development of an air flow software application that defined and controlled testing of engine parts at various stages in the manufacturing process.
The air flow software runs on a Microsoft Windows computer in a bench. The bench is a workstation configured with smart nozzles and gauges interfaced to the computer with direct connections (e.g., RS-485) or PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers). The engine part is fastened to a testing platform on or near the bench along with nozzles to control air flow, and gauges that read temperatures and pressure at various locations around and in the part.
The software controls various tests where air is directed at and through engine parts at predetermined face velocities to simulate flight conditions. Using gauges to read temperature and pressure levels, the software can evaluate performance to assure the part is performing per specification and within tolerance. Afterward, the data is collected and stored for aggregation and reporting.
The air flow software was developed over a number of years by the lab’s R&D team. As a result, responsibility for ongoing development and support passed from one team member to another many times, and software enhancements focused exclusively on supporting new business requirements with no heed paid to underlying technology. Without explicitly defining a clear technology strategy, the coding was not standardized or managed, and the application’s development platform (Microsoft Visual Basic 6.0) became dated and no longer viable or supportable.
The technology needs became more urgent, and Visual Technologies, Inc. (VISTECH) was selected to take over development and maintenance of the application, initially to add support for a new PLC. After that, VISTECH would update the software to a new development platform (Microsoft .NET), optimize the code to implement standardization and eliminate redundancy, and address potential performance issues.
VISTECH addressed this challenge by setting up a development environment at its office in Hartford, CT. After acquiring the code, VISTECH collected requirements from the aerospace company and its PLC vendor. By controlling the project using STEPSTM, VISTECH delivered a phased, fixed price project.
STEPSTM stands for Stages, Tools, Evaluations, People, and Strategies. It is a project methodology designed by VISTECH to track and manage projects of all sizes in order to provide a reliable approach for the development of robust applications, while ensuring exceptional quality, continuity, consistency, and control through all stages of a project.
For this project, Evaluation was a key component. It allowed project stakeholders to monitor and adjust project tasks as necessary, while adhering to project requirements. VISTECH periodically delivered code updates to the aerospace company’s staff who unit tested and confirmed development direction. By receiving required approval before proceeding, VISTECH ensured engagement with the client, ability to accelerate deliverables, and mitigation of complex communication risks.
Software enhancements to integrate the new PLC were completed on time and within budget. Onsite testing followed and included executing both manual and automatic quality assurance procedures. During testing, the software communicated with nozzles to deliver air at various pressures and gauges to record temperature and pressure readings at varied time intervals. Testing concluded within three months from project start, exceeding expectations.
The updated software is operating smoothly in the aerospace company’s manufacturing environment. With VISTECH involved, support continues beyond project completion. VISTECH approaches software development assuming completed applications are to be shrink-wrapped products. This “vendor standard” utilizes strategies (e.g., coding standards, scalability plans, code reuse, etc.) that assure more maintainable applications with lower cost of ownership. With this air flow application on the VISTECH standard, maintainability has improved and enhancements can be delivered more rapidly.