The monitoring and evaluation department has not been the glamour posting for airline IT professionals. The support services divisions of OEMs have not typically been lavished with high levels of technology investment, nor is the independent MRO sector the leading edge of IT innovation. A high school graduate would be shocked entering a world of mid-ranges and mainframes and a patchwork of custom applications written in near-extinct languages like Cobol. While new technologies such as “big data” analytics, wearables and 3-D printing offer breakthrough possibilities, MRO operators are hamstrung by their patchwork legacy-system infrastructure.
Apple and Google have transformed our expectations. We are able to communicate (voice, video, email, text) anywhere, access our data (and our music library) anywhere, use the tools to lead our lives (such as navigation aids) anywhere and deploy new capabilities when we need them. These needs are the same as those of a frontline MRO mechanic: have the right information (from repair procedures to task cards to aircraft history) when you need it, where you need it, with the right tools and parts in the right place. Increasing the effectiveness of front-line mechanics generates at least as much financial impact as reducing turnaround times or maintenance-caused flight delays.
What enables Google and Apple to provide us with such services anytime, anyplace and with such agility? The cloud. Yet this technology is poorly understood by staff across MROs. The cloud is not something to be left to the IT department. The business and operations staff at airlines, MROs and OEMs need to understand what the cloud is and what it enables operationally in order to demand the right support from their IT functions.
The cloud is defined as accessing data and programs over the Internet instead of on the drive of a desktop computer or servers attached to a corporate network. This technical definition obscures the huge operational impact the cloud can have on a business:
- By being able to access storage and computer power on an as-needed basis, any enterprise can access the latest infrastructure technology far more affordably than if it tried to do so traditionally. This is not just about data storage. High-performance computer clusters and the ability to store and analyze massive data sets are now affordable and available, even to small enterprises.
- Not only is the capability available—it is available quickly. Additional storage or computer power can be provisioned in minutes with the cloud, as opposed to a months-long process to provide additional capacity on a typical corporate network. A business can adapt much more rapidly to changing demands and market conditions.
- Rapidly evolving security threats carry severe operational and reputational risks, but even a small MRO can get the benefits of the security capabilities of the largest IT infrastructure operators.
A major misconception is that the cloud refers solely to public cloud services such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. There is, in fact, a spectrum of infrastructure options available, from traditional hosting on owned hardware, private cloud architectures, virtual private clouds, to public clouds. All companies will end up using a mix of these architectures. This is referred to as hybrid infrastructure. Companies will optimize which workloads are hosted based on multiple factors including those such as International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Legacy applications must be examined to decide which should be migrated (or replaced) and to what type of cloud. The question is how fast companies will transform to a hybrid infrastructure.
So if an MRO enterprise is operating a patchwork of legacy applications on traditional in-house IT infrastructure, what can it do to escape the pain of five-year incremental modernization efforts and seize the opportunity that the cloud offers now? I suggest four steps:
- Become smart consumers. Run analytics on dummy data on a cloud service. Obtain additional data storage in minutes.
- Aggressively use cloud services for non-operational needs. Most companies need a development-test environment to test new software or upgrades, and these can be set up or taken down far more easily in a cloud environment.
- Examine whether your technology department has the right skill sets and organization to support and differentiate your MRO operation for the next decade. Critically examine what is core versus non-core. Leverage partners to accelerate the change.
- Make transformation to a hybrid infrastructure a critical part of your MRO strategy.
The opportunity for MROs from wearables, big data, Internet of Things, 3-D printing and other technologies is tremendous. The cloud is the critical enabler that will allow MROs to deploy these technologies quickly and generate value.
Pablo Wangermann is client principal for aerospace, defense and industrials for Hewlett Packard Enterprise.