There is an old adage that but for a nail, the kingdom was lost. It reflects the frustration that some of the best ideas never see the light of day due to some simple impediment. Much of today’s information technology will not achieve the hoped-for benefits that are being touted just because the nail in this case may be nothing more than the need for a standardized format for MRO data, as well something as simple as determining which data yields what benefits.
We see advertisements in which robots and analytics can find and predict a myriad of anomalies. But when huge amounts of data are managed without any standard format and are created individually for each airline, how do we capture and make sense of the data in a way that is useful? Unfortunately, many technologies promulgated by non-aviation companies don’t take into account the complexity of trying to capture data from vastly dispersed sources in the airline world. Is there a way to create a universally understood data format, a lingua franca of maintenance?
The answer is yes! My concern is that we have so much technology that we don’t focus on consequences of the benefits of that technology. When we develop maintenance programs, we ask the question, “What are the consequences of failure?” But should we not ask, “What are the consequences of applying today’s available technology?”
Too often we are mesmerized by a technology’s capabilities rather than benefits. In other words, we have technology that is looking for a problem to solve, as opposed to a question that is looking for an answer!
Let me try to identify the nail that can keep this information technology kingdom from being lost. The answer lies in standardizing the data formats. But where do we begin?
There is no simple answer, but let’s start with what is easiest. Focusing on mechanical reliability, currently at its highest-ever levels, will have little overall benefit. Other areas that can have big benefits are predictive maintenance and analytics. But we haven’t really thought through the benefits versus the consequences given today’s regulatory rules and litigious society. If the analytics tell me of a potential issue, do I have to take action before it fails, or do I only have to react to a failure? Does this new capability increase the risk of lawsuits? Who does the predicting, and what are the rules and standards about how this is done?
Let’s start with the most basic element of MRO, the actual maintenance program. All maintenance programs begin with the Maintenance Review Board (MRB), which becomes the basis for the planning document. There may be interval changes and a few unique items, but most of the content is the same for all the operators. If the content is nearly the same, work items could be easily standardized with formats containing MRB content. This would greatly simplify records. Going a step further, standardizing work by location, man-hours and elapsed time, and identifying which routines are generated could produce a vast amount of potentially useful data. This creates an opportunity to increase efficiency and better schedule work by skill, hours needed, elapsed time and more. One current example is the benefits to lessors of a standard MRO data format for lease returns.
Analyzing this non-routine data can create a better allocation of effort and eliminate letter checks—allowing providers to focus on planning by schedules, location, materials needed, skill availability and available ground time. On any day, as much as 10% of the world’s fleet of 27,000 aircraft are in the shop. And during this down time, only about 50% of the work is scheduled, while the rest is unplanned. What predictive and analytical benefits can be derived from better data? What if this can reduce the aircraft out of service by 10% or 15% or 50%? Whatever the number, any improvement would create significant cost benefits for airlines.
This is just one area where data standardization can produce major gains. It can be a start, and once the program is standardized, reliability data—including shop findings and other critical information—can follow. Impact on the supply chain would not be far behind. When airlines stock just-in-case parts and inventory turns are less than two per year, just think of the power of standardizing data across operators and fleets. Small improvements can lead to large benefits.
My point is that data format standardization is the key to realizing huge benefits from new technology. Knowing and understanding how standardized data can boost efficiency is the biggest opportunity for MRO providers. But it is also a challenge. With so much capability available, we risk the wasted effort of jousting with windmills while not solving real problems.
Ray Valeika advises airlines, OEMs, private-equity firms and lessors. He was Delta Air Lines’ senior vice president for technical operations