MRO providers are seeking better ways to manage data and add functionality to their core operations using digital tools, from mobile devices to dedicated apps, but they are not necessarily seeking sweeping IT-system revamps. Many software companies are shifting to truly modular offerings that allow customers to phase in functionality and avoid often risky enterprise-wide upgrades.
The common ground has both MRO and software providers making progress in an area known for results that do not meet expectations.
“I think [MRO providers] are looking for an alternative to the failed implementations they’ve had over the years,” says Espen Olsen, director of business development of Aerospace & Defense at IFS.
The story is familiar to many in the airline world. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, which trace their roots to a 1960s partnership between IBM and heavy-equipment manufacturer Case, came to the forefront in the 1990s. Airlines, like most large organizations, fed data—often from paper—into mainframe computers. ERPs introduced several key functions, including process management and data-sharing. But they also brought challenges, especially when applied to complex, fluid processes such as managing heavy airframe maintenance checks.
While core business-process aspects—accounting, human resources and the like—are tailor-made for a single system, managing an MRO operation has proven less so, as it is more complex. And as companies seek more capabilities—such as enabling a technician to quickly determine whether a needed part is available without leaving his station on the hangar floor—they are turning to specific, yet integrable, options.
“We see more and more companies going down the same route,” Olsen says. “Previously, it was one ERP system that could do everything. They’re realizing that is not the case now.”
A fall 2016 Aviation Week/International Air Transport Association (IATA) survey of MRO providers—both within and outside of airlines—paints the landscape clearly. Nearly half of respondents said they plan to enhance existing software systems in the next five years, compared to 20% that are looking at complete upgrades.
Within the group seeking marginal improvements, the most popular enhancements included long-sought-after steps such as maintenance planning, e-signatures and document management. But mobile capability was mixed right in, and another emerging core functionality, data analytics, topped the wish list.
Customers’ desire to exchange data and leverage it collaboratively was the primary driver behind Swiss AviationSoftware Ltd.’s (Swiss-AS) latest offering. The Lufthansa Group subsidiary, which has grown from about 60 customers a decade ago to more than 160 today, counts a mix of operators and MRO providers among its clients, including several fellow Lufthansa Group organizations. When the group decided it wanted to share some data in its modular Swiss-AS AMOS software system, the company moved to develop a concept it had been considering for a while. The formal launch came in early June.
“The idea of AMOScentral existed for quite a time at Swiss-AS,” says Ronald Schaeuffele, Swiss-AS CEO. “The concept matured by the obvious trend in the aviation maintenance market to collaborate and share data. In addition, we received requests from the AMOS community, which reflected the desire to ease cooperation within airline groups and even beyond.”
The concept sounds simple: a module that can become a data gateway between any two AMOS customers. It does not store data, but manages transfers between “subscribers” and “providers,” each of which defines what access will be granted.
Ensuring that data can be passed back and forth through a single gateway, and is useful at each end, can be more challenging than it sounds.
“The first phase of the development and rollout of AMOScentral will be to focus on data harmonization, since our showcase is the harmonization and exchange of AMOS data objects between AMOS customers within the Lufthansa Group,” Schaeuffele says. “We can team up to use expertise and synergies while developing AMOScentral and bringing it to market.”
Creating a gateway between AMOS users will do more than link common software packages in different companies, as AMOS itself is an integrator. EasyJet, which installed AMOS in 2010, has more than a half-dozen other task-specific systems connected to the software package, ranging from its digital records management tool to a direct link with AJ Walter, the airline’s primary component maintenance and spare-parts logistics provider.
AMOScentral will enhance this connectivity, EasyJet says. Among the planned connections are point-to-point interfaces such as Spec 2000, cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services, and industry-specific feeds such as pricing information from vendors and parts-procurement platforms.
AMOS is working on AMOScentral’s “basic functionalities” and plans to roll them out gradually “over the next couple of years,” the company says. “AMOScentral will be an addition to the existing AMOS suite,” like, AMOSmobile, for example, Schaeuffele says. “However, at this stage the pricing model is not yet defined.”
IFS, which expanded its aerospace presence by purchasing MRO software provider Mxi earlier this year, is seeing a range of demand in the marketplace. In more mature markets, such as North America and Europe, demand for full-spectrum systems is tempered a bit as airlines grapple with the best way to upgrade legacy systems, Olsen says. In the Middle East, the appetite for adding new technology is frequently bigger, often leading to quicker adoptions. The Asia-Pacific region presents additional opportunity as well, as operators expand rapidly to meet growing demand.
The emerging importance of data analytics is adding a level of complexity to IT provisioning. Within airlines, one of the nagging data-management challenges is old and often incompatible internal legacy IT systems. American Airlines will have about 50 systems within its technical operations unit even after the US Airways integration is complete. Becky McCarty, the airline’s manager of data management for Tech Ops, emphasizes that inability of one system to talk to another does not have to stop an analytics push in its tracks.
American is focusing on moving unstructured data into its data warehouse. From there, it can be fed back out to individual, department-level systems, even if those systems cannot talk to each other.
The airline also has created a data-validation team to help manage requests to share information within the company. The team, which includes representatives from each tech ops department, is the new “first stop” for internal customers that want access to a particular data set, McCarty says.
The move has several benefits among them: boosting collaboration among departments, both within and outside of tech ops, and—more important—freeing up the IT staff to focus on more advanced and complex projects.
Underpinning all of this will be new policies shaped for the new world order of real-time data acquisition and broader distribution. The airline’s current policies focus on data storage, not how it can be distributed. The new protocols will apply to data “at a subject level, not just an application level,” she explains.
McCarty says that while some of American’s efforts focus on easing the IT burden, the internal tech experts will continue to play a central role in the carrier’s data strategy, “This is about partnering with IT, not going around IT,” she says.
The analytics push is helping software providers and their customers unearth new ways to use existing data. IFS last fall rolled out a tail-planning tool designed to help airlines match aircraft to specific routes based on myriad factors, ranging from maintenance schedules to destination-specific limits. The product grew out of work that the software provider did for Emirates Engineering as part of setting up a General Electric GE90 engine overhaul shop in Dubai. Emirates chose several IFS offerings, including its Complex Assembly MRO tool, to help manage major aspects of the shop’s operation.
When Emirates asked if part of the engine overhaul modeling optimization could be applied to its airframes, IFS went to work. The result: the new tail-planning offering.
“We were reusing what we already had, but configuring it in a different way,” Olsen says. The software and data “wasn’t intended to be used that way, but through discussions with Emirates, we applied what they had to what they needed.”
The push to augment existing systems extends far beyond administrative and back-office management functions. MRO providers are acutely aware that empowering their most important assets—their hands-on technicians—will play a major role in driving efficiency gains. Among the most promising technology is augmented reality (AR). Consultancy ICF equates AR’s potential in the MRO space as equivalent to additive manufacturing’s effect on parts production.
Air France Industries-KLM Engineering & Maintenance is among the maintenance providers dabbling in AI. The MRO provider rolled out a virtual training tool for the 787. Working with Air France Group sister company HOP! Training by Icare, which developed a similar system for the Bombardier CRJ family, the system both allows trainees to familiarize themselves with the aircraft and run through what-if scenarios.
Another emerging trend is leveraging technologies such as automated bots—think virtual chat assistants—and voice-recognition to simplify, or even eliminate, the user interface (UI). Ramco Systems has created about a dozen bots targeting aviation-specific scenarios such as an aircraft-on-ground situation. A bot connected to a parts-distribution system can handle multiple requests simultaneously, unlike a human who must rely on phone calls or email.
“The bottom line is, everyone loves to chat. This lends itself as a huge [incentive] for enterprise to adopt this platform for change,” says R.H. Chalapathy, Ramco Aviation’s head of product strategy. “Conversation is the new UI. A bot blends in with the user’s natural environment instead of forcing the user to enter a new world.”