A version of this article appears in the September 8 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
The aircraft MRO industry is going mobile—or at least, taking steps toward tablet and smartphone implementation. But unlike those in the consumer electronics market, where acquiring the latest wireless device is considered cool, many MRO managers are taking a more cautious approach to adding a handheld tablet or phone to the technicians’ toolbox. This need for due diligence is based on the premise that not every mobile device provides a one-size-fits-all solution to wireless document access in MRO.
“Selecting the right device depends on specific use-case and user context,” explains Sven A. Heitsch, head of strategy and technology information management at Lufthansa Technik in Germany. “That can only be determined by a specific evaluation process based on functional, non-functional and usability requirements.”
Heitsch points out that the decision to link mobile devices to back-office enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, or to a cloud source, is also case-dependent. “Back-end integration is very beneficial, although the overall trend to cloud is becoming dominant,” he says. “But any decision will have to be based on a thorough evaluation regarding availability, security and cost issues.”
Mobile devices are, in fact, just entering the evaluation stage at some airline and OEM in-house MRO operations. For example, in June, JetBlue Airways began testing mobile tablet devices at its Boston operations location, using Android, Windows and Apple IOS. The evaluation was scheduled to conclude in August, and under current planning, the airline’s mechanics will be equipped with tablet devices at all 11 JetBlue maintenance locations by year-end.
“We tested different tablet devices to see how well they deliver information,” says David Campbell, JetBlue’s vice president-technical operations. He points out that the company definitely favors tablets over smartphones, given the tablets’ screen size. “The larger tablets provide better visual access to such information as troubleshooting guidelines, work scopes and parts illustrations. For aviation MRO, that gives them a distinct advantage over smaller devices, specifically smartphones.”
Larger mobile devices also “drive greater compliance capability” because mechanics have real-time access to the most current information in the company’s database, says Campbell.
At the same time, he points out that mobile devices are a two-way street with definite back-office benefits. “The mechanic enters the information concerning a maintenance action, and that data is entered into the enterprise software system,” he notes. “That backflow of information means that the facility can do a better reliability analysis of what was done, and more accurately determine what is working and what isn’t.”
As apps become more prevalent with mobile devices, and increasingly sophisticated, a potential issue emerge. “We don’t want to see apps that take the decision point away from the mechanic, but rather provide a suite of solutions—not just one option—to help him solve a technical problem. As long as the apps do not undermine the mechanic’s ability to make a decision, they will play a very valuable role in MRO,” says Campbell.
Right now, in fact, there is a sense of a learning curve with mobile devices in aviation MRO. According to Bob Jones, a product marketing specialist for ATP in Brisbane, California, users must “closely examine, analyze and document” what will be gained by using a mobile platform. They must decide, for instance, whether the device will be used only in a hangar, on the ramp in front of the hangar, or at a remote airport. Another issue involves the type of data sent to the device. The answer to those questions will help determine the best form and type of connectivity required.
In tandem with planned usage, the device’s screen size and readability are considerations. Jones notes that while a smartphone is easier to carry around, and works well for viewing a brief checklist—or a relatively short paragraph containing concise repair instructions—using it to view complex diagrams, such as wiring schematics, may be impractical. “For most technical documentation, a tablet’s size makes it more useful, but the tradeoff is that a tablet is easier to damage, simply because it’s larger,” he cautions.
Jones points out that whether the device is connected to a cloud or back-office enterprise system, connectivity—and functionality—are slaved to a radio signal and its range. “When you don’t have connectivity, then the concept of mobility is defeated.” This, he explains, is why ATP developed an app to permit subscribers to its cloud-based aircraft maintenance library to download documents on a mobile device via Wi-Fi or cellular signal—prior to working on an aircraft that may be in a dead zone. The service currently is for users of iPhones and iPads. “Once that information is downloaded and resides on the device, the technician is given a greater degree of mobility,” he says.
At Southwest Airlines in Dallas, Director of Maintenance Scott Colling reports that mobile devices are in what he called “a discovery phase,” which began in the first quarter of this year. With the intent to start out small with a limited number of devices, Southwest introduced them at Dallas Love Field and Denver International Airport. The airline, Colling reports, selected iPads because Southwest’s enterprise system supports the Apple IOS. He emphasizes that the implementation strategy was designed around simplicity.
“We took a small first step by enabling our people to connect to existing technology and application systems they are already familiar with through a mobile device,” says Colling. “This approach allows us to see the benefits faster without having to address immediately the potential security, access, and support challenges that can often come when implementing new systems or applications outside the enterprise suite.”
Colling points out that the iPads were deployed to the carrier’s line maintenance operation first because “accessing reference material on the line and in AOG [aircraft-on-ground] situations posed more of a challenge,” and thus a higher benefit. “For heavy maintenance, you normally have kiosks and laptops available throughout the MRO facility, which is why we are seeing the iPads as giving more value in line maintenance,” he says. However, as technology evolves and “the cost of the bits and pieces it takes to become mobile decrease, there’s likely not to be an area within an MRO that would not benefit to some level,” he adds.
In selecting a mobile device, Southwest gave priority to the size of the viewing area, based on how the aircraft maintenance technicians were using the device. They determined that while both tablets and smartphones are beneficial, aircraft reference material is much easier to view on a tablet-size screen.
“The larger [8 X 6-in.] screen provided by a tablet is preferred by most of our AMTs, because it allows them to render diagrams and figures to a readable size,” Colling notes. “They want to access information quickly, without having to touch the screen multiple times to increase image size. The tablets also provide easier interface when toggling among various systems applications,” he says.
The technicians have system access through Southwest’s “virtual desktop,” navigating the systems with the tablet in nearly the same way they would if using a PC. However, Colling advises that adding specific applications custom-suited to mobile devices will “become necessary as the user interface transitions from simply accessing reference material to interfacing with the device in the ‘e’ task card and work instruction world.”
Meanwhile, the “discovery phase” of tablet implementation, says Colling, has shown that the more functionality the tablets give to technicians, the more they want to have. “What this means is that they would like to have more access to applications and systems that will enable them to do their jobs better.”
Tom Bode, general manager of Pratt & Whitney’s Columbus, Georgia, Engine Center, also is actively evaluating mobile devices. He reports that each platform type—smartphones, tablets and laptops—have their strengths and weaknesses, with screen size and data input capabilities among the criteria for selection. The facility’s commercial engine focus is on the IAE V2500 and PW2000, along with the military F117 and F100.
“The smaller screen size of smartphones makes them very compatible with certain communication functions such as sending and receiving short messages,” Bode remarks. “But, on tablets, more can be seen such as data reports, production schedules, and technical lists. Beyond that, there are laptops which are a little more capable when it comes to transferring a lot of data to the back office, as well as displaying very detailed parts inspections procedures, for example.”
As Bode notes, when transmitting data, it can be challenging to use a touchscreen device because the tablet has to link with a wireless keyboard. “At that point, you’re really going toward a laptop. Where a tablet does well is in a walk-around environment.”
Pratt & Whitney, he reports, equips its field service teams with laptops, but also uses smart phones.
|Major Players in the Wearable Computing Market|
|Google Glass||Smart glasses||Phone calls, view messages, built-in camera for video and photos, run Android apps, Wifi and Bluetooth connectivity|
|Galaxy Wear||Samsung||Smart watch||Phone calls, email and social media alerts, photos, video|
|SmartWatch 2||Sony||Smart watch||Phone calls, read email and social media messages, photos, video|
|Pebble||Pebble Technology||Smart watch||Run apps if connected to iPhone or Android device; has a _fitness tracker|
|Space glasses||META||Smart glasses||Similar to Google Glass but also includes 3-D imaging, infrared camera and virtual reality capabilities|
|M100||Vuzix||Smart glasses||Phone calls, view messages, built-in camera for video and photos, run Android apps, Wifi and Bluetooth connectivity|