MRO Information Technology: Inspiration and Impediments

Aug. 18, 2015
The issue remains: whatever the emergent technology, a significant percentage of aviation maintenance organizations may be slow to adopt and efficiently employ the stuff

The percentage catapults off the page: as many as half of all of aviation IT implementation projects tend to fail. So concludes a recent report by PwC network. Then there’s this: the MRO Software Survey 2015 says almost 41.5 percent of aviation firms are planning to change their present MRO software.

Labeling MRO “one of…aviation’s most conservative segments,” Ramunas Paskevicius, head of IT for FL Technics, insists one of the prime reasons that IT solutions sink is the attitude of the users themselves.

“I hate to say it, but aviation administration is still somewhat backwards,” echoes Errol Friedman, CEO and president of Northbrook, IL-based software firm C.A.L.M. Systems. Despite the much-ballyhooed migration of data to electronic environs, he insists, “Aviation record keeping is … a bit in the Dark Ages. Aviation is probably the most paper-intensive industry in the universe.”

Then there’s this from Greg Heine, vice president of business development for Fort Myers, FL, headquartered Flightdocs: “Change is slow in many of the organizations I’ve dealt with,” says the respected IT exec, whose firm produces a web and app-based platform for aircraft maintenance and inventory tracking. He pegs the industry’s innate conservatism to fear data might disappear, perhaps in the process of migration from one system to another.

Cloudy Days and Other Concerns

C.A.L.M. has a program that could be run off the cloud, says Friedman, but “We really haven’t interested many customers or prospects in doing that. They’re very protective of their records. Certainly on the cloud we think they would be secure.” But, concedes the C.A.L.M. executive, “We can’t argue with what they think.”

According to FL Technics’ Paskevicius MRO employees can prove significant obstacles to successful IT implementation. At the root of it is reluctance to change: a “negative approach towards anything new, unwillingness to exit one’s comfort zone … lack of motivation to learn new approaches.”

“You have a whole lot of people utilizing [a company’s] software daily,” says Flightdocs’ Heine. “For a commercial operation it could be hundreds or even thousands of individual users. In making that change [from one type of software or system to another] it’s very cumbersome … making sure everybody is trained on the system. Because if they’re not it can cause big time operational issues if they’re not able to process updates or pull information that they’re looking for.”

Heine believes hands-on, comfort-building training can go a long way in curing what ails IT implementation – that and hiring a savvy IT project manager.

First, training. It’s got to be flexible, Heine says. It has got to reflect the fact different MRO firms do things differently. “People have different workflows. Different organizations have different requirements [as] to how they handle paperwork, and what’s recorded.” Flightdocs’ software reflects this. So does its approach to transition training.

Say you’re transitioning from a paper-heavy records-keeping approach into one that’s decidedly more e-enabled. You want to train people up right. Positioning the old workflow parallel to the new workflow can help. Here’s how Heine describes the process: “What we try and put in place is that as they transition to going more electronic we often set up dummy aircraft, or demo aircraft on the system that are actually kind of clones of their real aircraft. And what they’ll do is, as they’re doing their paper workflow, side-by–side they’re also doing it electronically.

“They can do side-by-side so that they’re comfortable. They’re not concerned that they’re screwing things up, because it’s the demo aircraft. It’s not real live data.”

It’s a way of cushioning the critical comfort zone. The best software, the fastest most portable devices ultimately interface with human beings. That’s too often forgotten in this oft-times daunting digital age we inhabit.

A second consideration is hiring a project manager. IT initiatives can fall flat if you don’t get this piece right. Too often management puts the responsibility of implementing new IT “in the hands of somebody like the director of maintenance, the director of operations, or somebody like that,” says Heine.

The problem is these folks already have full-time jobs, and IT may not be their specialty. “That’s what ends up killing the [implementation] process,” says the Flightdocs executive. “They say, ‘Yup, we’re going to move ahead with it.’ And they never really take advantage of features of that new platform. Because they didn’t set it up correctly, or they’re not trained properly on it.”

MRO IT Trends

Before you can integrate employees into the new IT, you often have to integrate one system with the other. This has proven a persistent problem, and still is. Here we are in AD 2015, and  “most of these platforms don’t talk to each other,” says Heine.

Some IT history is helpful. “Initially, when we developed our product, it was an extremely integrated system,” says Santa Barbara, CA-based Patricia Kerrigan, executive vice president of Dash Group Inc., an aviation software developer. She says the system integrated with “flight operations, financials and the complete package of integrated solutions for airlines … We interfaced with a number of existing reservations systems.”

Enter the PC. Kerrigan says, “With the advent of the personal computer, it became more of a personal solution. In other words the maintenance department wanted to have their own particular solution, with no tie-in or link to finance. Finance had their solution. Flight operations had their solution.”

Of late there’s been a renewed demand for truly integrated software. She says, “People want to turn back to the integration that was sacrificed back in the mid to late nineties.”

What was old is new again. Except this time around the process is webbed to the Web. Kerrigan says, “It’s a different database if you will … a different structure. But the concept is the same, and that’s what’s trending back: integrated information.”

The potential of integration is especially intriguing in this age of Big Data. Heine says air carriers, charters and MROs “have all this information about utilization, costs, maintenance.” Problem is it’s scattered “all over the place. It’s in different spreadsheets. It's [on] different platforms and systems.”

Flightdocs is building a system to capture “as much data as possible about all areas of the organization,” says Heine. They’re doing that with the ultimate aim of “being able to provide that data to the customer so that they can make an informed decision about whatever it may be: aircraft utilization, inventory tracking or parts on hand.”

In the MRO environment of the future IT mobility will be a must. That mobility began to emerge in some four to five years ago with iPad applications. Next up, believes Heine, is “wearable technology,” perhaps wedded to Google Glass or the Apple Watch. Flightdocs has done some internal R&D in this area already. “We did a prototype for Google Glass that would allow a mechanic to actually pull up maintenance manual instructions.”

For now, he says the effort is on hold until Heine says Google “upgrades the hardware and software.” But watch out, because it – or something similarly wearably wondrous – is bound to emerge soon.

The issue remains however, whatever the emergent technology, that a significant percentage of aviation maintenance organizations may be slow to adopt and efficiently employ the stuff.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, “Political will of the top management is not enough to fuel such major projects,” asserts FL Technics’ Ramunas Paskevicius. Implementation may start with CEOs and CFOs, but the real traction comes when folks on the floor buy into the benefits of the latest and greatest IT.

“It’s really important for the leaders of these types of [aviation maintenance] organizations make sure that their teams are using these tools,” says Greg Heine. “It comes down to the bottom line: if…you’re not efficient, you’re going to be losing money.”

About the Author

Jerome Greer Chandler

Jerome Greer Chandler is a two-time winner in the Aerospace Journalist of the Year competition's Best Maintenance Submission category; he won in 2000 and 2008. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2017 Aerospace Media Awards in Paris, France. His best-seller 'Fire and Rain' chronicles the wind shear crash of Delta Flight 191 at DFW.