Analysis
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The Mechanics Of Tomorrow

We have already entered a phase of unprecedented growth in the world’s aircraft numbers. The next 20 years will see a huge increase but, asks Nick Rice, will there be a sufficiently skilled workforce large enough to absorb the demand for maintenance, repair and overhaul?

There are around six million parts that comprise a 747. Someone, or more accurately a team of people, has had to assemble each and every one of those components.

Teams of maintenance personnel will continue to service and repair those parts, keeping the aircraft in a safe operational state throughout the duration of its service life.

As the world’s population takes ever more flights, millions of people are putting their lives in the hands of these maintenance staff. If you were about to board an aircraft, then just as surely as you would want the most experienced and skilled pilots in the cockpit, the same should be equally true of the team of maintenance workers who look after the functioning of all those parts.

Maintenance personnel, by their very nature and the demands of their work, need to operate to the highest standards. They must have the passion to strive for technical excellence, as air passengers all over the world put their trust in these unseen armies with their armoury of tools and equipment. With rapid and relentless change taking place in the aviation industry, encompassing new safety and security standards, evolving information technology, next-generation aircraft, and fierce competition — combined with alarmingly unpredictable world financial markets and soaring fuel prices — the training and re-training of maintenance personnel is vital for airlines and MRO facilities if the aviation industry is to appropriately adapt to such dynamic change.

It’s a genuine concern for the industry that there should be a lack of suitable people filling these crucial roles. The majority of maintenance tasks and safety checks must be carried out by humans; as yet, there are still no machines that can reliably draw upon the creativity and skilful application of the mind required to carry out safe maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO).

This dearth of skilled labour and new entrants into the MRO industry needs to be addressed by OEMs, airlines and MRO facilities if they are going to cope with the forecasted explosion in the world’s aircraft numbers and the subsequent need for their maintenance. If the issue is not confronted immediately, there is a possibility that aircraft demand will be too great for MRO resources and a tipping point may be reached whereby maintenance capability is so stretched that MROs effectively control the airline industry.

The importance of replenishing the maintenance profession with new skilled workers is apparent to many companies and those who wish to remain competitive are investing in new training developments for tomorrow’s maintenance personnel.

The MRO facility

British Airways Engineering (BA Engineering) is the MRO subsidiary of British Airways (BA), supporting the parent airline and other carriers. The company is constantly evolving to achieve maximum performance in the industry and David Smyth, manager of BA’s Engineering Learning Academy, explains how.

“Despite the challenging financial pressures experienced across the world, we are committed to investing significantly in a number of training programmes and recognise that these are critical to our future. Last year at BA Engineering we hired 115 industrial apprentices, 20 business support apprentices and nine graduates,” he says. “This year we plan to take on even more and in addition to this, we have an ongoing programme to recruit and train a number of both mechanics and licensed aircraft engineers. Safety is of paramount importance and we embed a continuous improvement culture in our organisation to continue the exacting safety standards required by the industry.”

In order to prepare for the boom in maintenance which the next 20 years have in store for the aviation industry, businesses not only have to attract a quality MRO labour force, they will also need to move with the times and deploy the most advanced training methods, being ready to adapt to new training concepts. As Smyth says: “We operate in a fast-paced and highly dynamic environment with changing requirements that must be acknowledged. For example, with next-generation aircraft being introduced into fleets of airlines across the world, we are entering a new era that will require engineers to use new technologies and different techniques, making training and preparation even more critical.”

With regard to new facilities and innovations, Smyth adds: “We have made a substantial investment in three new state-of-the-art, bespoke training rooms to deliver theoretical and practical training elements for our short-haul Airbus fleet and future aircraft to be introduced to the fleet. These rooms move from a traditional ‘chalk and talk’ style of training, to an engaged hands-on simulation style to enhance learning. We are also looking at how we use mobile devices to support learning to add flexibility to our training proposition.”

It is clear that new technology will play a major role in efforts to accelerate the recruitment and education of the next generation of maintenance personnel. As the industry is geared towards reducing turn around times (TAT) and benefitting from as much uptime as possible, the opportunity for trainees to actually gain experience on grounded aircraft is increasingly more difficult. Accordingly, many companies will look to virtual solutions, allowing engineers to practise on simulation aircraft. This technology also allows for trainees to become familiar with virtual examples of an airline’s new aircraft models before they are even integrated into the fleet.

Another vital element of new training methods will be web-based applications. As Smyth states: “We have seen more of a shift towards e-learning which is particularly interesting as it is very useful for fact-based learning and when complimented with other styles of learning can be very effective. Working in the aviation industry, which is essentially an international environment, e-learning is highly beneficial because engineering staff at line stations across the globe will be able to access training tools wherever they are.”

Industry recruitment

As well as adopting new technologies, the need for new educational establishments to train the next generation of maintenance workers will be crucial. This is acknowledged by businesses at the frontline of the problem. Established in 1969, Morson International is a recruitment company specialising in the engineering industry and was recently named the UK’s top technical recruiter in the industry’s Top 250 report. Ryan Hamer, a senior consultant at the firm, comments on the founding of new colleges and increased investment into higher education courses: “The clearest trend in the MRO training sector is to outsource training packages. We have seen the opening of colleges in the UK that deliver complete training to attain B1 and B2 licences; this has given MRO facilities the option to outsource training. So we are seeing higher skilled, academic personnel becoming engaged in MRO business activities due to these new colleges that concentrate primarily on MRO requirements.”

Hamer also points out that fixed institutions — although much needed and welcomed — will not be the only answer. As well as new colleges, training will increasingly be made available in-house wherever needed. As he says: “The training sector is currently evolving into a mobile solution so that training can be delivered when the customer demands it. The training will travel to MROs when required.”

The wide acceptance throughout the industry that encouraging a new influx of maintenance personnel is essential is at least getting more and more companies involved in collective efforts. “Naturally, as more organisations become involved, many major companies have now shown interest in supporting MRO training requirements, thus raising the level of quality within the training packages across the industry,” Hamer observes.

OEMs

Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) play a central role in bolstering the training industry and helping it to expand. Boeing, as the world’s largest aerospace company and the leading manufacturer of commercial jetliners, is weighing into the challenge. The company employs more than 170,000 people in 70 different countries, easily representing one of the most diverse workforces in existence. From this remarkable staff, more than 140,000 employees hold degrees in a vast range of business and technical fields. “The challenge is always to deliver better training in less time and for less money, whilst still meeting any regulatory requirements. By better training, we really mean training that better prepares a mechanic to be able to start being effective on the job more quickly,” comments Steve Pennington, senior director of maintenance training with Boeing Flight Services.

“At Boeing, we are continually looking for ways of providing more task-focused training within the existing training footprints. This means being responsive and adaptive to the needs of the mechanic and developing advanced media and training solutions to do this. Some examples of this are our licensed course materials package and the 360 airplane tours we’ve built. This approach is enabling our customer training organisations to be more self-sufficient and to satisfy much of their in-house needs, since they can generally do this more efficiently than any outside vendor, and offering substantial savings in the development of high quality materials and media to teach with.”

The training sector will undoubtedly see new trends come and go. The teaching philosophies may alter, course programmes will be tweaked, and new technologies will be trialled. But whether it is fixed-base simulators or desktop simulators, mobile training solutions or static courses, the aim should always be the same: to impart the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain the world’s burgeoning aircraft fleet.

With regard to Boeing’s role in this, Pennington says: “Our mission is to provide as much knowledge and skills transfer as we can prior to the launch of a new airplane programme to make sure our early customers have as successful an entry-into-service experience as possible. Beyond that, we’re here to provide continued support to all of our customers and will continue to evolve our training programmes accordingly.”

Of all the varied factors that influence the maintenance training sector and contribute to its growth and improvement, Pennington is quick to emphasise what he regards as the most crucial element — people. “Despite all the great advances we see in technology, a good instructor is really at the heart of a great maintenance training programme. Boeing has always been able to attract and retain some of the best instructors in the industry. We have an amazing breadth of skills and experience within our team and we’re very privileged to be able to share this with our customers,” he explains. “But the skill set that we look for is evolving – it used to be enough that instructors had some relevant maintenance experience and brought some natural teaching ability, but now we need to expand this base level to include instructional systems, design expertise, an awareness of modern and evolving technologies and a degree of comfort in using non-traditional teaching strategies such as coaching and facilitation.”

Over a 20-year period, the maintenance cost of owning an aircraft is second only to the fuel cost. In the next decade alone the global MRO demand will equate to hundreds of billions of dollars. Meeting the demands of scale and having consistent lines of maintenance and volume is vital for the success of any airline. Considering that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that between six and eight years of experience is required for an aircraft maintenance engineer to achieve adequate performance, the aviation industry has to ensure that sufficient numbers come into the maintenance industry and become tomorrow’s engineers.

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