The Uptime Blog
I have a colleague that goes mountain biking in the desert. The other day he told me that given the choice between a map and a GPS, he would take the map. When considering GPS, he had some pretty obvious concerns regarding weight, durability and power requirements. But beyond those issues, his choice was based on his belief that a map has more information than a GPS, and that a map provides more context and range than a GPS. My friend is not old-fashioned; far from it, he is an early adopter of most technology. That's what makes his reliance on paper documents so curious.
This approach is not unique. Equipment OEMs, dealers and owner/operators are still tenaciously hanging on to their paper parts catalogs and maintenance manuals. Eliminating paper from the maintenance process is difficult because, like maps, even when paper documents are out-of-date they still provide a little bit of guidance. Like my friend who rides his bike into the wilderness, these companies are afraid of getting lost—except in their case the risk is lost revenue.
Let's see how else my colleague's analogy applies.
1) Does a paper map contain more information than a GPS? It depends. Paper maps have been specifically designed to pack the maximum amount of information into the minimum space. However, this information density also makes them quickly go out-of-date. If you are travelling in the wilderness, where things don't change real fast, an old map may work just fine. If however, you are trying to navigate the streets of Boston during construction season, you may need daily (or even hourly) updates.
How does this apply to maintenance? When told about plans to move to Enigma the most common question from dealers is, will the data be more accurate? (The answer is, yes.) The dealer's concern is not about the format of information but about its accuracy. With all the service bulletins, engineering changes and part modifications being issued by OEMs, if the electronic maintenance environment is not accurate then a dealer is better off swimming in a sea of paper.
(As an aside, the dealers' question is somewhat amusing because most of them already have some electronic data from the OEM or a 3rd party. Yet dealers still worry about accuracy. If dealers don't receive instant updates their mechanics will always have concerns.)
2) Does a map provide more context and range than a GPS? It all depends on the GPS. As previously stated, a map packs a lot of data into a single document. A GPS is meant to remove clutter, and focus the user on one thing at a time. The question is therefore, how much data is in the GPS? Certainly a handheld GPS is no match for the electronic navigation systems in today's cars, which in turn are no match for the multi-function devices and primary flight displays in modern aircraft. While my friend prefers a map, you would be hard-pressed to find a pilot that will sacrifice his GPS in favor of a paper sectional (map).
How does this apply to maintenance? Just like an airplane GPS, a modern electronic parts catalog includes far more than parts. It includes maintenance manuals, troubleshooting guides, service bulletins...anything related to keeping a machine up-and-running. This abundance of data is the equivalent of what my friend calls "context and range"—the ability to see the big picture from a small screen. This is critically important when mechanics encounter an unexpected, or non-routine, maintenance requirement—which happens more than 30% of the time. In such a circumstance, mechanics need access to any and all relevant data. It's the only way they can minimize downtime.
So what's the conclusion, paper maps or GPS? If you're going into the desert, a map will do just fine. If you're travelling in the city, a GPS is a better choice. And for anyone that works in the ever-changing aftermarket, go for the electronic parts catalog (EPC); it's the easiest way to increase performance of service and parts operations. Of course there is one area where a map beats a GPS. When you're cold in the desert, you can always get warm by burning your map. (But please recycle your maintenance manuals, all that paper would make for a dangerous fire.)
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.