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Airline Use Of Portable Maintenance Aids Growing

Portable maintenance devices offer airlines and MROs myriad advantages over older tools.

When it comes to training and day-to-day work, portable maintenance aids (PMA) offer airlines and MROs advantages over older tools—be they classroom instruction or paper-based systems.

“By utilizing the latest mobile technologies, mechanics have direct, instant access to aircraft-specific maintenance documentation at the touch of a button, saving crucial time during fast turnaround-time or heavy maintenance activities,” says Stephen Roebuck, marketing manager for Airbus’s Smarter Fleet.

Boeing sources point out that having the data plane-side, at the point of use, helps facilitate efficient maintenance on the line and in the hangar. This corresponds to technicians’ increased familiarity with mobile technology, along with standardized platforms being adopted by airlines and MRO customers.

For instance, Air France Industries-KLM Engineering and Maintenance (AFI KLM E&M) “has been using iPads and specific portable laptops, so-called Techpads for about three years now,” says Olaf Hoftijzer, director of training.

One application is to use PMAs as simulation-based instructional tools, “where we enable students to simulate maintenance work on the Boeing 787,” says Hoftijzer. “It is done on laptops and portables since, in a classroom situation, our instructors can take the tools with them and link with students’ laptops.” AFI KLM E&M recently received European regulatory approval to extend the use of PMA-based simulations to five out of the 10 days allocated to 787 practical training. In addition, “we use virtual reality [on our Techpads] for safety training, practicing fire drills and other safety drills,” Hoftijzer notes.

“You can [also use the devices] to train for situations that are too dangerous to do in a live environment,” says Hoftijzer. “The PMA adds strongly to a better understanding of theory. It enables us to make visual what has been taught in theory while discussing the theory.” 

[CHARTBEAT:3]

In the next few months, AFI KLM E&M will launch a PMA-based introductory course for new employees. The software will use an interactive aviation maintenance simulation to help new hires learn their way around AFI KLM E&M and its approach to aircraft repair.

“After a classroom introduction, this case [e.g., landing gear change] teaches the new person how we work, what interdependencies there are and what the impact of E&M is on the airline,” Hoftijzer explains. “We currently are scheduled to evaluate the use of the iPad to manage internal safety and other quality audits and are full of ideas to [help] renew our existing training procedures to incorporate capable new tools like PMAs.”

Vocal Approach

In contrast with AFL KLM E&M, Lufthansa Technik (LHT) is using PMAs in an audio mode, specifically Honeywell’s Vocollect voice solution for maintenance and inspection, to improve the quality of its MRO service on Pratt & Whitney APS 3200 auxiliary power units (APU). The goal is to improve the accuracy of the APU inspection process by linking the technician to voice commands and questions delivered directly from LHT’s database.

Here’s how LHT’s audio-based PMA system works: 

Rather than responding to instructions from a second technician reading from a paper-based checklist, the inspector takes orders directly from LHT’s database, the text-based questions and instructions having been rendered into audio by Honeywell’s voice technology. The inspecting technician, who is wearing a Bluetooth-enabled Vocollect SRX2 headset connected wirelessly to a wearable Honeywell Vocollect Talkman A730 computer (the PMA), listens to the questions and instructions and then responds into the headset. The voice is transmitted back to the Honeywell Vocollect unit, where the spoken answer is translated into text and recorded into the database.

This voice-driven automated process makes it easy for LHT technicians to report the condition of a specific APU and note parts numbers of components removed during disassembly. It also enables LHT management to have a real-time record and view all APS 3200 work underway. And because the Vocollect software uses a step-by-step reporting process, technicians must complete all of the required procedures before the report is finalized in the system.

According to Ole Gosau, LHT’s head of APU services, use of the Honeywell Vocollect PMA system is easy for trainees and existing staff to learn because “it teaches the system using their own voices.” Using a PMA-based inspection process also is “quicker and reduces mistakes,” says Gosau

This results in a more accurate and less time-consuming inspection process, as well as less time spent correcting human-generated data errors and omissions.

A Game-Based Approach

The training-process approaches used by AFI KLM E&M and LHT are just two of the many options available. They are as varied as the imaginations of those creating the software, which includes programs that combine instruction with video games.

Another source of programs is Cubic Corp., which designs portable maintenance aid-based training and management applications for the military and transportation sectors. Cubic has yet to create an aviation MRO-specific application (although the company can build them at any MRO’s request), but its game-based learning approach will be used by the U.S. Navy to train engineers to service its new littoral combat ships.

In one instance, the trainee—in a photo-realistic 3-D engine room—is charged with troubleshooting and fixing a failing gas turbine engine under the guidance of an engaging “mentor avatar.”

“Just as in a video game, your next object of interest, which could be a part on a gas turbine, will glow to guide you to the component and provide guidance on how to interact with the system,” says Andre Balta, Cubic’s studio manager of integrated training solutions. “This game-based approach is just as effective for training an MRO technician as it is a Navy engineer or an Army soldier.”

Challenges

As for the challenges of using PMAs, they include the cost of acquisition and support, uncertain durability of many tablets, ease of use in an MRO environment and connectivity to an MRO’s data network. Asked which of these issues cause him problems at LHT, Gosau offered a three-word reply: “All of this!”

When it comes to ensuring that these devices survive on the shop floor, AFI KLM E&M gives employees PMAs for their personal and professional use. “This ensures people take good care of their devices,” says Hoftijzer.

As for the other concerns cited by Gosau? “After the initial investment, costs are minimal,” he says. Meanwhile, AFI KLM E&M simply connects its PMAs to its network “using 3G and Wi-Fi.” Actually, this MRO’s “main issue is the acceptance of the use of PMAs by staff and instructors,” Hoftijzer points out. “The development of tools is still an issue since it requires specific knowledge of IT [information technology] to be combined with technical maintenance experience.”

AFI KLM E&M also is concerned about the proprietary restrictions associated with using iOS-based tablets. “Although we started with implementing iPads, we believe software should be device-agnostic in the future, so we do not limit our possibilities for change,” Hoftijzer says. 

Complicating matters for AFI KLM E&M’s PMA rollout has been the consortium’s legacy IT infrastructure. “Internal legacy systems have a different pace of development than apps do, and not all systems have already adopted the API infrastructure that is needed for swift app development,” he explains. “It therefore unfortunately still takes some time to supply our employees with new apps.”

This said, “we believe the main issue is the [PMA] interface with the internal legacy system,” Hoftijzer notes. “In fact, the benefits of PMAs are limited by our IT system to deliver the right information anytime, anywhere and on any device.” Nevertheless, AFI KLM E&M is pushing ahead with expanding their use. “Our first priority lies with giving our [aircraft maintenance technicians] access to our management information system via an app to online and offline manuals and to implement an electronic Techlog system,” adds Hoftijzer. “Ordering materials, tracking equipment and getting real-time updates of fleet status are also on our list.” 

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