We’re now roughly a decade and a half beyond the dot-com boom of the early 2000s and its subsequent (and spectacular) collapse. It makes sense to revisit some of the costly lessons learned as we now accelerate into a new phase of technological innovation in aviation MRO. At the time, our businesses were seduced by the allure of 100% seamless material transactions that would ostensibly occur in a paperless office. On the consumer side, investors committed more than $100 million to the idea of being able to have pet food delivered to our doorsteps. It seemed like a great idea at the time.
As airline profitability shows indications of being around for the long haul, we are stepping into uncharted territory, and now is the time to reinvest back into our businesses. We no longer have to make the difficult choice between funding revenue-centric technology or back-end support innovations, many of which have been neglected for years. We’re now playing catch-up, as some long-antiquated systems and processes are in dire need of overhaul, but the opportunities and rewards are enormous.
For those of us who focus on MRO, our mandate has not changed. We are still accountable for delivering safe and airworthy aircraft in a timely manner. What has changed is the pace of technological innovation outside our industry, and we would be wise to broaden our perspectives and embrace those developments lest we risk falling into an endless cycle of reinventing the wheel. We tend to be a slow-moving industry in many respects, many times not on the bleeding edge, and sometimes that’s a good place to be. Where other industries might have a high tolerance for risk and the inevitable failures that accompany early-stage technologies, we have to do it right 100% of the time. We are the definition of “mission critical.”
Many companies are focused on the “Internet of Things,” a broad manner of describing a dynamic environment of devices and sensors that all communicate via the Internet. As we begin to carve into this vast opportunity to find the applications and utilities that will have roles in aviation MRO, we need to heed past lessons. While these rules should apply to any technology endeavor, they are particularly important for aviation. We are not simply looking for creative ways to apply new technologies, we are taking steps to improve the passenger experience for literally half of the world’s population. We can and will make this happen.
ν Let’s make sure that we are solving real-world problems. Recklessly chasing technology purely for the sake of being “the most advanced/connected company” has proven time and time again to be a fool’s errand if we are not able to pinpoint an improvement in quality or achieve measurable results in a reasonable time frame. Demand should drive innovation, not the other way around. Passengers and shippers have eagerly and repeatedly told us what they want; let’s innovate so as to deliver. Many air carriers are showing operational performance improvements as of late, but we know that we have a long way to go.
ν As we progress, be wary of approaches that will cause a seismic shift in user behaviors. It has been said by experts in the field that technology is great but psychology wins. The axiom seems to hold true, yet bears repeating because such errors in judgment still occur with surprising frequency. Some innovations look great on paper, but expectations for user adoption can be both wildly inaccurate and unrealistic. Early engagement of front-line workers and users is without doubt the best risk-mitigation strategy.
ν Along those same lines, separate fact from fiction. While there are many great ideas, only a limited number can be turned into actionable concepts that drive process or product improvement with real expectations of return. Enabling access to more data can be potentially useful—or it can result in large and useless repositories of ones and zeroes.
ν Last and perhaps most important, keep in mind that we work in an industry that thrives on the professionalism, expertise and passion of its employees and partners. The best technology can only augment those resources. Innovation takes vision, influence, muscle and funding. As subject matter experts in aircraft MRO, we often encounter decision-makers and number-crunchers who do not understand our space. We need to be bold, decisive and specific as we build and present the business cases for MRO technology.
Technological risk can be reduced significantly, and we can avoid the costly missteps of projects past by adhering to the basic principles above. Fifteen years from now, we do not want to be in the unenviable position of saying, “It seemed like a great idea at the time.”
Let’s get it right and let’s deliver.