0200 GMT: Captain Smith is at the helm of a London–Dubai flight, having just finished introducing himself and the crew to passengers. He notices an alert on the Slat/Flap Electronic Control Unit and assesses that one of the flap actuators would need to be replaced before the next flight. He leaves a message on the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) system, informing the ground maintenance crew: ‘RT OB FLAP ACTUATOR FAULT.’
0210 GMT: Brian Wheeler sees the message on the system, just as he is finishing his first coffee of the night. He enters the ticket into the MRO system for allocation to one of the ground mechanics. Big Data analytics, based on historical information, helps predict that a bracket in the actuator mounting area may also need to be replaced. It automatically traces the shortage of mounting brackets by looking into the inventory system, and alerts John Holloway, the material planner.
0245 GMT: On receiving the alert, John immediately raises a request through an online community used by airline employees and seeks help from other airlines in that station, either to loan or drop an item in the pool.
0300 GMT: Another airline responds to the request and sends the bracket.
0330 GMT: An authorization for supply is given to the peer airline and the receipt is made out using robotic process automation (RPA). As part of the receipt, RPA feeds necessary information like the purchase order number, part number, serial number, and supply agency from disparate systems and completes the receipt process in the logistics system. Further, it also automatically issues the item to the identified mechanic (Steve Parker) through a straight-through process (STP) against the tail number of the flight.
0900 GMT: The moment the aircraft lands in Dubai, Steve completes the actuator replacement and installation of a new bracket. He signs off on his iPad and also completes the ‘dirty finger document’ (DFD). After releasing the aircraft for the next flight, Steve scans and uploads the DFD and archives it in the technical records management system, where it is hosted in the cloud for future reference.
This is what an ideal maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) execution can look like, thanks to digital technologies. A combination of emerging solutions is increasingly being leveraged by global airlines to implement lean and efficient processes that streamline overall aircraft maintenance. Mounting costs and labor crunch have already caused players in the airline MRO segment to start thinking out-of-the-box, and set up innovative aircraft maintenance measures. Leading players like Air France Industries (AFI), KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Lufthansa Technik AG, Delta, and Jet Blue are continuously trying to adopt new digital technologies in areas like predictive maintenance, spares forecasting, and maintenance records management.
Let us take a look at the emerging technologies that could make a streamlined MRO operation (like the one in our example) possible:
Big Data: This can be used to retrospectively analyze voluminous historical records to predict failure trends and the associated impact in terms of spares, resources, special tools, and so on. Big Data can also be used for health monitoring of components such as the engine, auxiliary power unit (APU), and landing gear. With this, airlines can gradually move from a ‘preventive maintenance’ mode to ‘predictive maintenance’ (prognostics or diagnostics) and save huge amounts of time and money.
RPA: This technology normally mimics human interactions with the application user interfaces, and enables automated transactions across systems without any integration. It can be effectively configured with the necessary business rules to ensure contextual process execution.
Mobile Devices: The proliferation of mobile devices and wearables like the iPad, Toughbook, Google Glass, and smart watch give ample options for the aviation industry to pick a suitable mobile platform, based on its appetite and the processes involved. Mechanics can improve their productivity by using mobile devices for reporting maintenance jobs, raising discrepancies, signing off tasks, and referring to technical documents like the Aircraft Maintenance Manual and the Illustrated Parts Catalogue while working on the aircraft.
While digital transformation helps achieve many benefits, it also comes with certain challenges. Airlines looking at embracing digital for their MRO operations will need to focus on establishing a robust IT landscape, choosing a mobile device suitable for the MRO environment, selecting a vendor who offers both domain knowledge and IT expertise, and identifying a suitable cloud platform with lower operational expenditure (OPEX).
Which digital technology do you think offers the most scope to transform your MRO ops?