The Uptime Blog
A couple of weeks ago I was at the MRO North America Conference and Exhibition in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. For those who haven’t been there, this is a big show. It’s not as big as the NADA automotive show but still, there are many companies represented and if you care about aircraft maintenance there’s much to see. There’s also a lot to learn. The technical sessions are well-run and for any given topic there are a variety of perspectives presented.
One session I found particularly interesting was “Commercial Maintenance Trends 2008-2010.” The speaker panel included people from GE Engine Services, AAR and US Airways. One topic addressed consolidation and the emergence of mega-carriers (e.g. Delta-Northwest and KLM-Air France). Some speakers are anticipating a similar consolidation in the maintenance arena, with mega-MROs coming into existence.
Another interesting session discussed how airlines and MROs will address the looming labor shortage in maintenance. The airlines have seen this problem coming for awhile but no one has really figured out how to solve it. Not only do physical bodies need to be replaced but hard-earned experience needs to be captured and preserved.
The executive from GE offered some numbers that highlight the maintenance tsunami heading their way. Currently, GE and CFMI have about 25,000 engines in the field. They are adding about 1300 engines per year so that in ten years (2018) they anticipate having 38,000 engines. Although it’s still a fairly young fleet, it is aging, which means more maintenance down the road. During the discussion GE focused on engine monitoring services and how condition-based maintenance can reduce unnecessary service but none of the panelists had any fresh answers to the question of recruiting, training and retaining an effective workforce.
Switch gears now to the April 21, 2008 BusinessWeek article about the growth of offshore aircraft maintenance… Many airlines now believe that offshore MRO is the answer to controlling the cost of heavy maintenance. Because airlines are responsible for ensuring that maintenance on their aircraft is properly performed and meets FAA regulations, they should ask themselves, “What can be done to ensure aircraft mechanics fix airplanes quickly and consistently, anywhere in the world?” Enigma provides cost-effective answers to this question.
Enigma maintenance solutions optimize maintenance workflows, accelerate mean-time-to-repair (MTTR), ensure quality, capture service notes, automate part requisitions and integrate with maintenance planning, inventory, logistics, tech pubs and configuration management systems. Our products tie the mechanic into the back-office maintenance infrastructure so that there is constant visibility into the work being performed and all relevant service information is immediately available to mechanics and engineers. Enigma technology helps airlines control the cost and improve the quality of aircraft maintenance, regardless of where the airplanes are serviced.
With all the news about the mass cancellations of flights across the country in the past two weeks, it’s hard not to think about aviation maintenance, even if you’re not in the business as we are here at Enigma. And I count myself blessed that I was not one of the 250,000 would-be passengers stuck somewhere. In an age when everyone is accustomed to getting what they want instantly—by shopping on the Web, talking on the cell phone, ordering fast food, emailing documents and getting instant messages—being stuck at an airport hundreds or thousands of miles from your destination is incredibly frustrating, to say the least.
Of course, it’s not only hard on the passengers, it’s hard on the airlines too. This problem causes major grief for the airlines; not only are their customers upset, but an aircraft on the ground represents thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, each day. It’s a crisis, no doubt about it.
We wish we could say, “If the airlines used Enigma software, this problem wouldn’t exist right now!” But it’s not that simple. Automating labor-intensive job card processes and accelerating the delivery of service bulletins are just two of our technology applications that improve aircraft maintenance and compliance. And it’s true that airlines can fix aircraft faster, more efficiently and consistently when they use Enigma 3C, InService Job Card Generator or InService MRO. However, the real problem for aircraft maintenance has been one of economics and technology integration.
Over the past decade airlines have been forced to grapple with overwhelming economic challenges namely: airfare de-regulation, the rise of low-cost carriers and the resulting demand to maximize aircraft uptime. These economic challenges are compounded by the increasing volume and complexity of aircraft maintenance information and the inability for many of these airlines to get that data in a usable format—SGML and XML. (See earlier post.) As a result, maintenance departments have been forced to use manual processes to investigate and compare the many revisions, service bulletins and updates sent out by the OEMs. Performing these tasks by hand is time consuming, expensive and error prone. To make matters worse, once a change in the maintenance data is detected, someone else needs to update the relevant aircraft work plans and job cards as well. All this manual intervention makes the whole process reek of inefficiency.
What is needed is a way to automatically identify technical content changes, combined with a fully integrated maintenance workflow. Regular readers of this blog won’t be surprised to hear me say that this technology is available today. Enigma and other software vendors provide solutions that address these issues, except of course for that nasty little problem of getting usable OEM info.
While the current airline problems seem to be the result of stricter FAA enforcement combined with process flaws in aviation maintenance, the OEMs can’t be let off the hook entirely. The airlines’ ability to use technology to address those flaws didn’t exist in the year 2000 but it certainly does in 2008. Now that the public knows that aircraft safety is at stake, perhaps the OEMs will loosen their grip on the maintenance content and help their customers who have been buying all those shiny new airplanes. If so, it will be the dawn of a new age for airlines, an age where safety and compliance can be easily accommodated within the normal routine of aircraft maintenance. Then all those passengers can get out of the terminals to catch their flights to wherever they need to go.
You may have heard about Enigma InService Job Card Generator (JCG), which automates the production of job cards (task cards) containing all the technical information required for maintaining aircraft, engines and other complex equipment. The optional Digital Signature module enhances InService JCG by enabling electronic completion of job cards with checkboxes, comment boxes and digital signature fields for mechanics and supervisors. Tune into this webcast to discover how airline maintenance and engineering departments can streamline and automate their job card processes.
In response to our recent blog post titled, “The Future of Airline MRO Technology”, we received an interesting comment, which I’d like to address here. The assertions that were made in that comment have been underlined. (Please note, these are only the major points on which we disagree. Perhaps in a future blog we will address the additional disagreements as well.)
Do all OEMs make it difficult to use their data? No. The original blog post focused on Boeing and Airbus because they claim to be helping airlines by offering restricted/proprietary software solutions for a very low cost (sometimes free). Boeing and Airbus try to convince airlines that the best way to receive regular maintenance updates is to use these proprietary solutions. We disagree with this assertion. However, unless an airline is big enough to pressure Boeing and Airbus to give them usable MRO content (SGML), the only way to get it is to pay extra. Many small to medium-sized airlines have little purchasing power over Boeing and Airbus and so are forced to give away a key MRO advantage because they can’t afford the additional charges. The engine OEMs typically author their content in SGML and then publish it in PDF format. Airlines can often get the engine PDF content for free but again, they have to buy the SGML. The reason aircraft and engine OEMs obstruct access to usable MRO content is to protect their aftermarket parts and services revenue. (Airlines tell us it’s more about protecting parts revenue than service revenue but either way we’re all getting stuck with a higher bill.)
Isn’t MRO really the airline’s problem? It’s true that airlines have legal responsibility for the quality of maintenance on their aircraft but there are many examples throughout history where the responsibility and ability to comply with a law don’t go hand in hand. In this case, since the airlines have a hard time getting usable MRO content it makes compliance more difficult and drives up maintenance costs and delays. The fact is, aircraft data is so complex and so inconsistent that huge IT efforts are needed to operate an airplane safely and most of the problem is created by the OEMs trying to guard their profits against third party suppliers.
Why isn’t software-as-a-service (SaaS) the answer? If there’s an empty buzzword in aviation MRO it’s “software as a service.” Suggesting that SaaS is a superior option to fully integrated enterprise software is interesting but incorrect. Various outsourcing initiatives have been attempted over the last 20 years with the result that technicians must often rely on data that is 3-9 months old which, in some cases, results in maintenance errors, dangerous situations and costly (FAA) fines. Our customers tell us that for aviation MRO, the SaaS model has resulted in inefficiency, inconsistency and higher costs.
Many airlines modify the MRO content because they know better than the OEM how to operate and maintain their aircraft. (That’s why they’re certificated by the FAA.) The SaaS model of sending this customized information to a third party vendor, who then provides an electronic application that sits outside their network and doesn’t integrate well with all the other in-house systems is basically saying “let’s stick with the status quo.” (i.e., the stand-alone business processes used in MRO for the last 20 years should work for the next 20 years.) Airlines are trying to become more efficient and more profitable; therefore, they must integrate maintenance operations with other enterprise systems. How else can planners dynamically generate job cards? How else can inspectors use digital sign-offs? How else can engineers automatically update aircraft status and configuration? How else can technicians issue non-routine job cards (from the flight line)? Should the airlines continue doing business the way they have for the last 20 years until they go out of business?
To make a long story short, airlines are smarter than this. They understand total cost of ownership and they understand that the benefits of integrating the MRO content (manuals, IPC, job cards, COC and SB) with configuration, inventory, scheduling, etc. will create significant efficiencies in personnel, parts and uptime. The key to greater maintenance efficiency, consistency, quality, safety and compliance is access to usable MRO content. This is what is essential for the airlines’ survival.