After decades of data disintegration, the airline MRO industry has come to a point where data sources are consistent, meaning all data is more or less accessible through one single platform, but there are still some airline environments where different databases and subsystems are being used, as Mario Pierobon finds
The future of maintenance IT solutions
According to Ronald Schauffele, CEO of Swiss AviationSoftware (Swiss-AS), a level has been reached where data sources and data feeding into software systems are consistent with an integrated approach that has become mainstream. “What is becoming an important topic for the next few years – as we build up from what we have – is the set of functionalities dealing with predictive maintenance, condition monitoring, and connectivity from the aeroplane to the ground, and the review of the data from different sources. This is not yet a reality that is common, but it is developing critical mass,” he says. “Predictive maintenance, condition monitoring and fault analysis are all readily available, and the different big players are now offering this on their platforms.
“What is also becoming a reality is combining the data beyond the fleet of one single operator. This is a practice which differs from the past, as you may have only had a fleet of 15-25 aircraft with similar tails to aggregate the data, now there is the possibility to analyse the data with much more tails at hand, and this is of course giving complete new perspectives in regards to predictive maintenance and condition monitoring. This is becoming now a commodity, and the airlines are connected to a provider of such services – such as AVIATAR from Lufthansa Technik, Skywise from Airbus and Analytics from Boeing. The result will feedback into the airline maintenance operations, thereby providing a better picture of the status of the aircraft.”
Predictive maintenance can be defined by the possibility to compare a large set of data with the expertise given by a particular, very knowledgeable organisation, while the combination of that ends up in a recommendation. “It is not just the software which does the prediction, predictive maintenance is a combination that includes knowledge, data and the capability to have feeds from the aircraft. The combination of all of these components will be to some extent the prediction of whether or not something is happening. Predictive maintenance is not just a sophisticated prediction algorithm, the expertise of the people working with the data and their use of it also plays an important role in predictive maintenance,” says Schauffele.
“The data topic in general is critical, as there are so many areas in which data can be exploited – if it can be collected. Think about a paper logbook on the plane, which is only accessible serially by a single person at a time. Handwritten entries are not searchable, cannot be used in analytics, and cannot be mined for information. All the data inside a logbook is dark – useless,” says Mark Martin, Director of Commercial Operator Product Line, Aerospace & Defence Business Unit at IFS. “Now, if we introduce an electronic, connected logbook, it can be used by multiple people at the same time, from anywhere. A mechanic can see what faults are on the aircraft, arrange for proper parts and tools and be productive the moment he gets to the aircraft. And, of course, that digital data can be aggregated and mined. The Internet of Things will also help, with sensors being used to measure and collect data.”
Domains influenced by IT
At the moment, the most popular area for IT solution providers is to bring the solutions closer to the aircraft. “We have seen this shift coming over the last five-to-ten years now, and operatives are already not going back to the office printing out paper, reviewing manuals and downloading reliability type of data as much as they used to. All of these activities have now been transferred, or are going to be transferred, close to the aircraft. Moreover, whenever they do some data collection, it will be immediately reported back in the system. These are the areas we are focusing on but, at the same time, many of the airlines are still working purely on paper. This is now a shift which we are trying to push into our own community step-by-step; it is not a trend which we have experienced consistently in the recent past, but rather what everybody is now speaking about, or wants to have. However, we still face cultural barriers, age barriers or even regulatory barriers. Nevertheless, multiple organisations are now trying step-by-step to enter into an environment where digitalised data becomes reality, which will keep will keep IT solutions providers like ourselves busy for the next several years,” says Schauffele. “Automation is also developing an ever-more solid critical mass, and this will also affect maintenance planning and work package generation. The burden is increasingly being taken away from the shoulders of the planners, and work packages are being built-up on the fly. For example, if an aircraft lands and the system – such as AMOS – analyses the data and proposes a task to be done on the aircraft, and the mechanic at their end will receive tasks to be done from the system, they will sign them off electronically, and the aircraft leaves to the next station where the system will propose new tasks to be done. We are witnessing a shift of increasingly more handmade work more into the responsibility of the system.”
IFS sees customers expressing interest in buying focused solutions that they can deploy with little or no involvement from IT – essentially solutions that are delivered from the cloud. “Airline IT departments are typically overwhelmed with projects – and ramp-up time for IT to help with a new initiative can be months. With cloud solutions, focused business applications, such as long-range maintenance planning, can be deployed quickly – and, of course, they are budget-friendly for airlines of all sizes. You do not need a large fleet and a large budget to take advantage of these solutions,” says Martin.
IT and aviation safety
Safety is an important requirement for maintenance software customers. “Our customers are very focused on safety – and that is driving new and enhanced features in our IFS Maintenix product suite. In the latest version of IFS Maintenix, we introduced the notion of ‘repair references’. The idea is that an engineer defines how a particular repair should be completed, as well as any follow-on tasks that should occur after a period of time – say an annual inspection or a permanent repair, if it was a temporary fix,” says Martin. “When a mechanic signs off as having completed the work, IFS Maintenix will automatically schedule the inspections required or permanent repair. The idea is to automate as much as possible, so nothing falls through the cracks – and that leads to a far better safety record.”
With regards to safety, the suppliers of IT solutions are circling around how fast information goes into a system, how accurately decision making can be done, and who proposes what needs to be done to the employees, the mechanics and technicians. “All these aspects fall under the umbrella of safety. In the past, people went into stores and took components, installed them, and perhaps two or three days later, somebody would recognise that the component was not in accordance with the approved configuration. Now, all the different processes are supported by IT in real time, which, of course, would have an immediate impact on safety. Moreover, decision making is becoming much more accurate, and not dependent on whether or not a mechanic or an isolated process delivers something which is not connected to the rest of the process landscape. In the end, IT solutions do not only improve efficiency, but also safety,” says Schauffele.
Training and IT solutions
Training plays an important part in the successful implementation of an IT maintenance solution. The importance of initial training is not always perfectly understood by companies introducing maintenance software. “Swiss-AS offers a variety of training options to refresh and update maintenance staff knowledge of those parts of AMOS they require for their daily work. All training is tailored to customer requirements, and they can also choose eLearning. If people are not all in the same place, they can log in to eLearning tools. It is an easy, flexible, cost-effective and speedy way to achieve training goals. As a software supplier, we always offer onsite classroom training, which means in the training of a specific topic required from the business area (for beginner as well as advanced users),” says Schauffele. “We have virtual classroom training, and this is becoming increasingly popular as it allows connecting various customers in regards to one specific topic. They can speak without trainers and exchange their experience in real time by using the latest web conferencing technology, thereby keeping learners up to date. People do not have to travel, which is also a benefit for the airline. We also offer our customers the so called ‘on-the-job’ training, which is delivered directly at the work place. This is also becoming popular as people can share knowledge of how to use the software directly at the workplace.”
The learning opportunities can be combined, or, alternatively, people can choose their preferred
option, they are particularly important when the software releases are coming along. “We have two major releases per year, and we offer training regarding the differences between the latest and earlier versions of the software. This is something the organisations have to keep in mind. It is very standard practice that pilots and technicians get their transition training with a new aircraft or variant, but it often happens that organisations forget about the technicians when they get the new software. They may even reduce the manpower in regards to what we call the AMOS competence centre. The result is that the software evolves over the different releases, but not enough care is exercised on the impact into the organisation, which may be an issue because, after a period of, say, five years since introduction, people would be working with the latest version of the software, but in the process landscape as originally introduced. In the worst case scenario, it may even result in software reimplementation,” says Schauffele.
There is also more emphasis being put on making the solutions user-friendly by targeting them for focused use cases. “Our IFS Maintenix Fleet Planner is a cloud product, and focused on long range maintenance planners. The concepts used and the screen layouts are very intuitive to a maintenance planner. If we tried to make that application do more, to reach outside of that core planning function, and add different types of workflows and different user roles to it, it would lose focus. I think this approach is coming from the development of mobile applications. App designers try to make the use of their apps obvious and intuitive – they do not come with instruction manuals. We are trying to do the same across all our products – make them easy to use and intuitive for the person trying to do their daily job,” says Martin.