E*-nable Your Shop Floor: Maintenance personnel feedback is critical for software and hardware product selection and development

Sept. 1, 1999

E*-nable Your Shop Floor

Maintenance personnel feedback is critical for software and hardware product selection and development

By Michelle Garetson

September 1999

One of the most powerful and valuable tools in a maintenance operation may not be in anyone's toolbox, but rather, only a few feet from it.

Computers and computers with Internet access have proven to be invaluable assets in the maintenance facility. How they are used within the operation can greatly affect that shop's efficiency, quality, safety, and profitability. Do you know if the computers in your facility are being used to their full capacity?

To fully appreciate what computers in the maintenance facility can do to eliminate paperwork aggravation as well as accounting misadventures, managers should get feedback from their maintenance personnel as to what software and hardware features are important to technicians.

Maintenance personnel know what they want
Michael Lentini, owner of Aero-West Specialties, an aircraft full service center at the Santa Maria Airport in Santa Maria, California, did just that. The feedback from technicians proved instrumental in the development and production of EBis, a billing information system software that also provides maintenance tracking and a contact database of customers and vendors. Lentini, along with Eric Baal, a college sophomore studying Computer Science, took suggestions — usually daily — from the technicians on the floor to fine tune this software to provide a seamless interface with the shop floor, the parts department, and the front office.

EBis is a complete billing system. It will track all time on any discrepancy and allows up to three technicians for each discrepancy. Work order estimates will show total time for each squawk, as well as the time to complete the whole work order automatically. EBis keeps a complete parts inventory and automatically deducts for all parts billed to any work order. Also, every time a part is used, the system marks a product usage file so that parts used can be tracked for inventory. And, every part on the customer's invoice has a discrepancy number next to it to show just where each part was used.

Lentini explains, "Basically, this software was designed by IAs — it's simple to use and works the way a shop really works — not the way some CPA thinks it should."

Aero-West technicians, Adam Halop, Ron Martinson, and Mitch VanOsdel, who all helped with feedback for the software, are thrilled with how EBis has made their lives on the floor easier. They are able to file their logbook entries while working on the aircraft from laptop computers hooked up on their toolboxes and can print out a cost status report or final invoice for customers. All three are impressed by the fact that they can do everything from their toolboxes.

Tap into your resources
Maintenance people have a good track record for being resourceful in devising and developing tools to perform the tasks at hand. Bill Morrison, Chief of Maintenance for Dad's Products in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and recently appointed Chief of Maintenance for Channel-Lock, maintains two Falcon 20s. He uses a system designed by another A&P and IA, Angelo Conti of ATS in Atlanta, Georgia. This system, available since 1988, has recently been modified to a Windows-based application. The newer Windows version also includes a parts inventory system and allows for logbook entries.

"The key feature for any computer system setup in the maintenance shop," says Morrison, "is that it has to be user-friendly. It's no good if you have to sit down and read a big manual before logging on. With 10 to 15 minutes of instruction on our system, you would be able to understand it and perform the functions."

Morrison also has the system on his laptop that enables him to update records and tasks, as well as print out new cards and due lists from remote printers. Search capabilities are very important to Morrison. He feels every system should include the ability to search by part number, serial number, ATA code, and card number code

"One of the benefits of using a smaller, lesser-known company for maintenance software," explains Morrison, "is having a more personal involvement in designing specific software to specific needs. I can e-mail my problem records in a temporary file to Angelo for debugging."

He continues, "One obstacle that maintenance personnel face is that there are software systems out there that are considered to be the Ôstandard.' Many decision-makers, who are not always the maintenance people, feel that if an aircraft was not maintained in accordance with this standard system, the aircraft will be perceived as being less valuable when it comes time to either buy or sell that plane. Any system can be efficient, effective, and compliant if designed and used properly."

Airlines can benefit from maintenance department input as well
United Airlines also apparently understands the merits of involving personnel with a maintenance background to implement and integrate its computer systems and software. Laurie Stanton, United's Senior Staff Analyst for Line Maintenance Automation, joined UAL in 1984 at its overhaul shop after completing military duty with the U.S. Army where she performed helicopter maintenance. She stayed in the reserves and became a certificated A&P through San Francisco Community College's program. Later, Stanton moved to UAL's line maintenance crew at the San Francisco, CA maintenance center.

When asked about making the switch from the line to computers, Stanton replied, "Actually, it was a natural step. So much in an aircraft involves computers — glass cockpits are all computerized, so it wasn't as big of a leap as people think." She continues, "I'm very happy with this position because it involves two things I enjoy — maintenance and computers.

Stanton is in charge of monitoring United's system that was implemented three years ago. The Excalibur software enables technicians to research and retrieve anything that would be available in paper format. It is a combination search engine and database that appears in icon format for each fleet type that United has and maintains. United also implemented a sophisticated printing system, which provides a special date/time stamping feature that is approved by the FAA. Eventually, it is hoped that this system will be Internet/Web-based and that United can eliminate the need to maintain microfiche libraries.

Another responsibility regarding computer operations for maintenance involves Stanton working closely with the staff in charge of AMIS (Aircraft Maintenance Information System), which is the huge mainframe system that stores information such as aircraft history, safety communication, parts database, and more for all of United Airlines. Line maintenance personnel use this Electronic Logbook and Excalibur in tandem to accomplish daily tasks.

Training is crucial to any process and Stanton travels extensively to "train the trainers," those who will go on to teach their technicians how to work with the maintenance program. Feedback about the training and systems is very important and welcomed.

"I get constant feedback from our technicians all over the world regarding our maintenance program," explains Stanton. "Because my territory is the world; people will e-mail me, send voice messages, and so on to let me know what works and what doesn't for them with this software.

CIMLINC of Itasca, Illinois, has in recent years looked from the OEM side of the aerospace industry to the MRO side and included maintenance personnel for input when designing computer software and hardware products.

"In 1995, the company received a contract with Boeing," explains John West, CIMLINC's president and CEO, "and later, contracts with Pratt & Whitney and Raytheon for computer-aided process planning for building and assembling aircraft products."

CIMLINC developed Shop Excellerator™ software for OEMs that incorporates "work scripts," which are formulated as step by step instructions for completing each task.

Delta Air Lines has signed a multimillion dollar license agreement for CIMLINC's Shop Excellerator software and implementation services, resulting in a comprehensive new shop floor maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) system for the Atlanta-based airline. The first production implementations of Shop Excellerator MRO™ are expected in September 1999 with ultimate usage extending to 5,000 technicians. Working closely with Delta personnel, the same format was used for the MRO software and was to include functions such as collection of activity-based cost information, and even specialty features such as recording tool calibration dates. With this function, the technician, upon reaching the point in the instructions requiring the use of a torquing tool or other calibrated tool, would punch in the number assigned to that tool to verify validity of calibration. The computer would return a message of either valid or not valid.

"This system," says West, takes the "busy work" off the technician's shoulders and let's him do his job, which is to fix airplanes. He doesn't have to worry about calibrations being out of date after the fact, it's already in the system."

He continues, "It also takes technicians through, step by step, to validate as well as enforce that they've accomplished each task and accomplished them correctly."

The Shopman™ computer was created to be used with the new Delta MRO software. "

A problem that occurs in the shop," explains West, "is that the technician and the computer are rarely in the same area. We wanted to develop a computer that they could take with them directly to the point-of-use at the aircraft."

"Technicians are to be full-networked citizens," claims West. "Here's a person doing mission critical work. Why can't they have the same capabilities the front office has? In today's world of attracting and retaining high quality, skilled people, it's important that the facility provides the same productivity tools to the technician that they provide for everyone else. We need to e-nable the shop floor."