In my previous post (The New Flying Fortress) I suggested that the way Boeing and Airbus deliver technical data is unsuitable for modern day maintenance systems. This post describes how OEM data formats limit the airlines, forcing them to treat maintenance planning (ERP/MRO) and maintenance execution as separate worlds. The difference is like getting a vinyl record album when all you own is an iPod.
Part of the problem with OEM data is historic; the maintenance manuals for many older fleets were not created according to AMTOSS standards. But the main problem is that OEMs designed their systems as a standalone/closed environment.
How can you tell if a technical document is standalone (i.e. for reference only)?
PDF format — When OEMs deliver manuals in PDF, they're telling airlines they don't care about business productivity. PDF is of limited use for integration, automation or e-commerce. In fact, PDF is designed to behave, quite literally, like electronic paper.
- Scanned PDF displays text as a raster image, like a picture, so that a person can read it but a computer cannot. Optical character recognition (OCR) may convert the raster to computer text but conversion accuracy raises valid concerns for highly regulated industries like aviation and there is very little automation possible.
- Standard PDF allows cut/paste and search/extract of specific text strings, allowing some level of automation, but the result will be a customized solution that must be closely monitored and maintained.
For example: Most airlines receive Boeing MPD (maintenance planning document) in PDF format. However, they create this document using sophisticated tools and could easily publish it in a more usable format such as SGML, XML or MS-Excel spread sheets (like Airbus does).
Structure, layout and presentation — OEMs often design their technical content for printed paper, not for computer displays. Such an approach means that the maintenance information can be easily understood by mechanics but presents a greater challenge for computer systems. On paper it may look good, but a deeper look at the data reveals:
- Inconsistency with the ATA spec—yet it still prints properly
- Missing data tags—important information that isn't properly marked
- Fragmentation—related information marked as separate topics
OEM maintenance data that comes in PDF format or that has inconsistent design cannot be easily linked to the airline's ERP system. Without this integration, maintenance accuracy, efficiency and costs, will suffer.
As an example, inventory management and forecasting is critical to an airline. One of the most important features of ERP/MRO is the management of parts, tools, equipment and resources. In the ERP system airlines need to have: master configuration, parts list, alternative items and important part attributes such as position, symmetry, interchangeability, priority and serialization.
Having the illustrated parts catalog (IPC) as a paper document may be handy when standing next to the aircraft, but it doesn't help much when planning maintenance and inventory. What is really important is to know the correct parts beforehand and to understand which parts can be used in each location. In that sense, even if the OEM's IPC is delivered in SGML/XML (not PDF) it is still for reference only. Here are a few examples of the problem:
- Alternative item group (AIG)—Alternate parts can be inferred from the documentation, but it is not provided in the actual part data. Explicit references to alternate parts are sometimes included, other times they're only mentioned within the text, or they may only appear in the PNR (the part index section of the IPC).
- Interchangeability information—In this case Boeing claims to have adopted the Airbus attribute, but they're not using it. It appears in the document type definition (DTD), that specifies how computers should interpret various tags, but it has never been added to the data itself. Airbus is slightly better, but still this information is often missing. One might assume that the master configuration interchangeability is always one-way, but when you get to the unit configuration it is hard to tell.
- Position, symmetry, priority—All behave in the same manner.
When airlines request the original structured information they can get it...sometimes. (Maybe if they're a really big customer.) But the IPC is an example of a larger problem of data quality and consistency that holds true across all the maintenance manuals. In an industry that operates some of the world's most sophisticated machines, and has some of the highest safety concerns, the documentation strategy of Boeing and Airbus is sending the cost of maintenance into the stratosphere.
Will the OEMs ever provide data in a format that ties into the airline's MRO/ERP and improves maintenance and planning? Or will they try and force airlines to use proprietary applications that don't? Today, mechanics are getting aircraft information off the equivalent of a record player, when what they really need is an iPod.