The reliability and delivery speed of information is a crucial element for the success of any business in any industry. But in the aviation industry, it ultimately comes down to human lives, which makes the maintenance planning and scheduling of an airline’s maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) vital for the health of its customers as well as its finances.
It is a formidable challenge; the entire MRO process is dizzyingly complex, encompassing the scheduling, forecasting and replenishment of inventory through to the precise repair, overhaul and delivery of serviced aircraft — all within the parameters of strict regulation and operational and financial logistics. Airlines need to benefit from MRO solutions that can simplify this minefield with speed and efficacy, translating into substantial cost savings and increased competitive advantage.
Headquartered in Switzerland and with extensive global operations, Rusada has been a leading aviation software provider for over 25 years and its flagship product, 'Envision', is an industry benchmark providing key management information and operational process control for operators, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and MRO providers.
For Tim Alden, commercial director at the company, there has been very little change in maintenance planning and scheduling. “I would be controversial and say it hasn’t evolved that much really — unlike the flight operations side of the business that has embraced mobile technology, there hasn’t been a similar leap in the maintenance world.”
While Alden feels the industry has been slow to make comparative progress, this is surely on the cusp of change as the MRO sector is poised to start making greater use of mobile technology. Rusada is ready to move with the times and the company is just about to launch new mobile software. Alden describes the functionality of the solution, saying: “Our first Android-enabled user interface is specifically targeted at keeping engineers mobile and not tied to a desk. It will feature the ability to locally synchronise and store information should the signal back to the server not be available. Its main functional features will include electronic sign-off, barcode recognition of employee badges, work cards and part tags — all using the familiar mobile application functions and with e-signature to follow closely.”
There is a whole host of tablet devices appropriate for use in the field, with the ubiquitous iPad often in contention. This has created much discussion and dilemma for MRO software providers. Rusada opted for compact versatility, as Alden explains: “We chose Android to be the launch on a seven-inch device. In relation to the other devices available: they are significantly cheaper than the iPad, more versatile in terms of memory storage and charging adapters - and, more importantly, they are the right size for both viewing as well as fitting in pockets of overalls and flight suits!”
As the MRO industry incorporates mobile operations, it will be interesting to see which devices come to the fore. In a world where information is expected to be at our fingertips, and delivered in a stylish and desirable format, traditional MRO software may be impacted. “Trying to make maintenance information easy to enter and inter-operate in a manner that is acceptable to people who use an iPhone is a challenge,” states Alden. “Being able to deliver such functionality in a quick and progressive manner is the challenge, which is why we at Rusada have approached it in a different manner. We see this kind of development as complimentary to the application and as such it should be parallel to the core evolution of the software. This makes it more agile, malleable and less reliant upon the classic release cycle of the parent application.”
A leading provider of adaptive enterprise solutions, Ramco is a company at the forefront of technological innovation in the MRO sector. Ramco’s ‘Series 5 Aviation Suite’ is a business process-oriented web-centric solution that has been devised to optimise the internal infrastructure of its customers. The solutions the companies offer incorporate secure ‘on-Cloud’ options within a reliable delivery framework.
The product covers all facets of aircraft maintenance and engineering and Ramco is a distinctly progressive player in the industry. Discussing new developments and the future of the sector, Thamizha Nambi, VP of aviation solutions, says: “Due to improved reliability of new aircraft, routine maintenance needs are going to come down. Moreover, managing all the maintenance needs of aircraft in-house requires huge investment in infrastructure and distracts management bandwidth from running the core business of airline operations. This trend is changing. Airlines are demerging their MRO operations into independent companies.”
Nambi predicts that this may well change the playing field and more specialist MRO providers will emerge which can leverage their specific area of expertise and drive prices down via economies of scale and by choosing locations with lower labour and set-up costs. “Lots of airlines have started outsourcing their maintenance and engineering functions. The MRO service providers’ role is also changing. They are taking more of a prescriptive approach to maintenance. Additionally, "total care" maintenance functions are becoming more and more popular,” he states.
Regarding the importance of mobility and the use of smartphones and tablet devices, Nambi is clear about how they will transform the working landscape. “Smartphones and tablets are going to change the way we work in future. A planner performs the planning and scheduling jobs from his or her desktop or laptop, but rarely uses smartphones and tablet devices in their job,” he says. “But with the use of smartphones and tablets by the mechanics at the gate/hangar and shop, this will provide real-time maintenance needs to the planner, which will improve the planning and scheduling work. A good example is a situation where the planner, using his/her tablet device, can review the discrepancies reported during the last leg of the flight and make changes to the Remain Overnight (RON) packages. Also, mechanics on the tarmac can review the stock and defer discrepancies from the smartphone. All these functionalities are already available in the latest version of 'Ramco Aviation Solution'.”
The maintenance planning and scheduling industry is in flux, with new software requirements constantly growing. With an incisive knowledge and understanding of the aviation industry, MXi Technologies has developed what it says is an industry-leading product to tackle a full range of demands. ‘Maintenix’ is used by small- to mid-sized organisations through to large-scale global enterprises across all aviation industries — including airline, OEM, defence, third-party MRO, helicopter operations and corporate aviation. 'Maintenix' is designed to provide the critical information insights required at all levels of the organisation, from maintenance technicians performing work in the hangar, through to management overseeing supply, engineering and reliability — right up to executives monitoring the tactical and strategic decision-making.
Commenting on the change in maintenance planning and scheduling, James Elliott, product marketing manager at MXi Technologies, says: “The market has placed higher demands in technology solutions to provide the cross-organisational information insights that planners need to automate executable maintenance plans that ensure the right parts, tools, labour, and location capabilities are always aligned to complete the work on time. It is this advanced planning approach — driven by engineering and business rules — that has underpinned a significant change in how organisations predict, plan and control aircraft maintenance. This has long served as the catalyst for how we build and deliver our 'Maintenix' product.”
The approaches and products devised and marketed to the maintenance planning and scheduling industry take many different forms, but the growing importance of software solutions is undeniable. As Elliott affirms: “We are definitely witnessing an increased need across the industry for systems that can provide aviation organisations [with] the information insights they need to better manage their maintenance planning in a way that reduces costs and safeguards revenues. For MRO software providers this means providing a solution that can deliver the business transformation customers are seeking, not just the latest bells and whistles.”
Tata Consultancy Services
As one of the top 10 technology companies globally, with 254,000 of the world’s best-trained IT consultants, Tata TCS has long monitored and been part of the changes in the maintenance planning and scheduling industry, as IT systems have progressed from disintegrated to streamlined functionality.
Developed in collaboration with British Airways (BA), the company’s ‘SWIFT MRO’ product is an end-to-end integrated solution that serves the entire user community in an engineering organisation. On the market for a little over two years, the software is targeted to mid- and large-size carriers as well as third-party MRO service providers. M. Rajkumar, a senior IT analyst at TCS, explains how 'SWIFT MRO' assists in MPS. “The planner is as good as the information that he is provided with, in real time. 'SWIFT MRO' provides solutions to the entire planning function in an airline MRO or third-party MRO, incorporating core/central planners, line or ramp planners, hangar planners, component overhaul planners, central buyers and material pre-load planners,” Rajkumar says. “The solution covers technical, planning, production, procurement, supply chain, finance and HR, and cuts across all MRO business processes. 'SWIFT MRO' allows you to capture the cost of parts and labour tracked in real time, right through to each job card. This enables cost variance analysis, allowing you to measure profitability of the job or contract and refine your future bids so that target margins are not eroded.”
The availability and correct exploitation of information is of the utmost importance for planners. Having the right information at the earliest point in time is key for them to be effective, ensuring that safety and compliance aspects are met and disruptions are managed proactively for optimal capacity utilisation. Rajkumar has seen the planning function evolve from intra department through to inter department and now into collaboration with OEMs, fuelled by solutions focused on functions such as e-enablement (electronic log book) and Airplane Health Management (AHM) AIRMAN.
“These tool sets are already changing the way the maintenance planners carry out their day-to-day job. For example, with the advent of the electronic logbook, these days defect reports flow directly into the planners dashboard, rather than waiting for the flight to land and satellite admin (data entry staff) entering the techlog information into the system. Another example is advanced diagnostics capability provided by OEM tools like AHM/AIRMAN, which give an early alert to planning function on what is likely to be reported next for corrective actions – before they actually get reported by pilots or technicians.”
Founded in 1989, Swiss AviationSoftware (Swiss-AS) is a global leader in MRO software and the company’s ‘AMOS’ solution is a fully integrated software package that delivers all the required tools to meet the demanding requirements in the fields of maintenance, engineering and logistics.
The company has recently enhanced the solution with a graphical presentation of the flight plan that improves the situation awareness for planners and station managers and allows a drag and drop planning of line maintenance activities. As for heavy maintenance, the Gantt view of the ground time has been introduced, allowing a real-time follow up of maintenance activities.
Another recent improvement to 'AMOS' allows the planning of a single sub task within a ground time. This breakdown into smaller work steps permits a better allocation of the required resources and a higher accuracy of the heavy maintenance planning.
Ronald Schaeuffele, CEO of Swiss-AS, expands upon how 'AMOS' is developing: “Besides the improvement of planning core functions, further integrated side processes were the key factors evolved in recent years,” he states. “This includes human resources with full integration of shift planning, rostering and attendance control in 'AMOS'. In facilities, providing the ability to plan the allocation and reserve any kind of facility and workplaces in advance, such as hangars, bays and special equipment. And in materials, forecasting the demand and availability of required material and pre-allocating it to specific work.”
The aviation market is seeing a marked trend in the separation of aircraft ownership from maintenance activities and, for Schaeuffele, this is connected to maintenance planning and scheduling activity. “Nose-to-tail MRO activities within an airline are becoming rare as more companies specialise in sub areas,” he says. “We assume the different perception of maintenance planning and scheduling for airlines and MRO providers might be one reason for that market shift.”
With respect to constant IT development, Schaeuffele adds: “The industry is currently talking about mobile devices and cloud computing. However, we expect a constant enhancement and finally implementation of the currently available technologies. From our point of view, new technologies that would bring considerable added value to companies will only be implemented if cultural and technological thresholds can be overcome and customers see a real return on investment that justifies the technological innovation.”
Based in California, Component Control is a developer and provider of MRO and logistics software solutions, and its ‘Quantum Control’ product provides advanced aviation management support across the industry. The founder and CEO of the company, Z Bar-On, believes maintenance planning can be a challenging part of the business. “Maintenance scheduling and planning activities are still a bit of a black art in most MRO organisations,” he says. “It’s a difficult situation when a large amount of effort goes into planning, just to be overtaken by a discovery process that includes non-routine and unexpected repair activity. And, there is a big difference between long-range planning in terms of capacity, budgets and minimum stock levels, and short-term reactive planning.”
Where there is no magic or mystery for Bar-On is the importance of accurate information to business leaders across the industry. As he explains: “What we see is the leaders of this industry pushing for management information systems that engage every level of management in the organisation. Dashboards, web portals, event managers and work flow management all contribute to the solution. Senior executives are focusing on eliminating a fragmented infrastructure. The ideal situation is to implement an all-inclusive, comprehensive and ready-to-deploy system that operates from a single database, from one IT provider.”
Formed as Communications Software in 1971, Commsoft is a specialist aviation engineering and maintenance systems business and its flagship product ‘OASES’ is a popular MRO IT solution. Nick Godwin, managing director at Commsoft, has observed the 'OASES' software evolve alongside the demands and changing face of the industry.
“From an 'OASES' perspective, the system has rapidly grown from being an engineering and inventory control system, to being a business system at the centre of maintenance operations. MRO IT systems fundamentally enable regulatory compliance and reporting, but increasingly must generate value as decision support tools, utilising the power of real-time data linked to ETLs, EFBs, operations systems, HR and finance systems. A significant part of 'OASES' developments is directed at system interfaces, including ETLs/EFBs, KPIs and management reporting.”
Commsoft also notes the growing need and demand for one single integrated IT solution that will serve all levels of a business, from management to shop floor. As Godwin highlights: “There is a trend towards greater management reporting, decision support and proactive alerting, in addition to enhanced open systems integration. The general principle in IT should be that origin data is only entered once and is a link between an operations system and the MRO IT system, to ensure a regular feed of timely, more accurate data that is only entered once in one of the systems, rather than several times for different purposes, such as feeding a journey log and a tech log.”
A global systems and consultancy company, Empower MX has a suite of specialist software solutions under the name ‘FleetCycle’ which are tailor-made for maintenance planning and scheduling. The Empower 'FleetCycle' range includes solutions designed for line, production, MRO, reliability and maintenance programme managers.
The company is eager to move its customer base towards emerging MSG-3 systems of scheduled maintenance programmes. Empower MX believes the new MSG-3 system avoids unnecessary and premature maintenance, allowing for tasks to be accomplished when they are a "must" and not before. The standpoint is that accomplishing tasks before they are due reduces component yield and increases the cost of keeping that component in an airworthy condition. By addressing maintenance tasks in this fashion, there are predictions of up to 30 per cent in cost savings. Dinakara Nagalla, CEO of Empower MX, explains, “Our business strategy of supplying outside-the-box-thinking solutions in software, IT and consulting, revolves around moving our customers quickly to full MSG-3 so they can immediately realise decreases in production costs and downtimes and increases in safety, forecasting accuracy of turnaround times and profits.”
From a planning and scheduling perspective this strategy aims to ensure the lowest possible production costs via the operative question of “How long is it safe to wait in order to accomplish this task?” Empower MX products are designed to capitalise on "opportunity maintenance". “'FleetCycle' ERP solutions look at idle aircraft, analyse the mountains of historical data being collected at the point of hangar-floor contact by the technicians using our production and line manager products, and then fills that idle time with meaningful-to-bottom-line opportunity maintenance tasks that maximise component yield,” Nagalla explains. By way of example in real terms, Nagalla adds: “As a 'FleetCycle'-equipped decision-maker, I see four different ways of accomplishing a task at five different maintenance stations over the next two weeks. I will select the option that allows me to accomplish this task just before it comes due so we can maximise component yield; I no longer have to bundle this task like we did under MSG-2.”
As current legacy systems and off-the-shelf software solutions do not all support the dynamics of MSG-3 philosophy-based maintenance operations, Empower MX could benefit from a competitive advantage.
TAP Maintenance & Engineering (TAP M&E) was founded in 1945 and is part of the TAP Portugal Group — one of the largest MRO suppliers in the world, and is in a good position to review the maintenance planning and scheduling industry. It has worked through many challenges presented by the MRO industry and has learned to adapt in order to consolidate its respected position. As Fernando Matos, head of information technologies at TAP M&E, states: “The TAP M&E example is very interesting: after almost 20 years, with back office systems highly coherent and not designed to adapt to processes, we started to innovate. If you do not innovate, you die!”
The company turned out to be particularly adept at creative innovation and it now invests heavily in R&D and embraces the progressive new technologies that are coming into play. Matos ventures that the future of the industry will be driven by such new technologies, with established companies forming partnerships with innovation specialists. “I believe it will be reduced to some players, most of them already existing, competing to solidify their market share. Some of them will have to form partnerships with smaller players, experts in innovation, processes and development of new technologies, in order to be competitive. I believe we will assist a more mobile market, with simpler user interfaces, moving towards state-of-the-art innovation, applying new technologies such as augmented reality, large-scale RFID [radio frequency identification] usage, predictive algorithms, real-time data analysis and systems integration. Our own MRO cloud will be a very near reality.”