Satair Hamburg facility.
Satair is searching for an automation system to install at its Hamburg facility.

MROs Implementing RFID And GPS Rollout For Component Tracking

MROs increase focus on parts management and tracking systems to improve efficiency

With the sourcing of parts critical to keeping any MRO or airline maintenance operation’s turnaround times to a minimum, both customers and suppliers rely heavily on software and other technologies. From a software perspective, parts management has become all-encompassing in the past few years.

This is due to a combination of data importation, increased data-integration options, interoperability and the use of full Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, allowing every aspect of component tracking to be managed while producing greater volumes of data, says Maureen Coletta, manager for business development at maintenance software vendor Trax, whose systems are used by more than 130 airlines globally.

She believes the main advantages of this lie in the areas of scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. “With an ERP system, maintenance planners can forecast parts requirements by having that information included in the engineering module,” Coletta says. “With integrated mobility solutions, mechanics can learn about defects before the plane has landed and order parts in advance.”

While having software capable of monitoring parts and their usage has certainly helped the industry, the sheer number of parts under a company’s control presents a challenge, according to Andy Smith, group operations director at UK-based aircraft component supplier AJW Aviation. The company has expanded its component programs in the past two years.

AJ Walter

AJW’s warehouse near London Gatwick Airport has become more automated in the past few years.

The most notable expansion was in 2015, when AJW signed a large-scale contract with EasyJet for component repair and overhaul services, supply of consumable parts and management of the British low-cost carrier’s spares inventory across its 30 European line stations. In total, this amounted to 241 Airbus A320-family aircraft and took the number of aircraft it services to more than 900. “The challenge lies in managing the volume in an efficient and effective way that enhances the customer experience,” Smith says.

Underpinned by software

Smith says its main parts warehouse, located near its headquarters at London Gatwick Airport, is synced through a component control ERP system, Quantum, which tracks all parts throughout the supply chain and identifies their exact location whether that is in repair, sales or dispatch. “As soon as a part enters AJW’s system, it is assigned a unique barcode that enables it to identify exactly which process of the supply chain it is in, such as receiving, inspection, packing or dispatch,” says Smith. “This information can be shared with our customers via our AJW online web portal so that they have complete transparency of their part throughout the whole process.”

Scale is also an issue for airline maintenance divisions. Air Canada’s engineering and maintenance arm operates eight warehouses across Canada and two within Europe, all running from a Trax software system. In addition to these facilities, it also has components in dozens of other countries that are managed locally by third-party providers and remotely by its stock-keepers. Richard Steer, vice president at Air Canada Maintenance and Engineering, says logistical challenges range from differing languages, government and contractual regulations, time zone differences and communications abilities.

Air Canada

Air Canada maintenance and engineering has made use of GPS-enabled monitoring devices, which have been installed on certain high-value components for aircraft in its fleet.

Other parts specialists have developed management software internally tailored for their needs. Jim Gross, president of AAR Digital Services, says the U.S.-based aftermarket provider uses a component-tracking system developed by its in-house software engineers called IMOPS (Inventory Management and Order-Processing System). This system, according to Gross, allows staff to scan in a barcode that instantly assigns the part a location within a particular warehouse, thus making that data accessible via a hand-held device from the warehouse floor. 

Another way AAR is using technology to track and sell parts is through its online parts store of factory-new parts acquired from its OEM partners. “The inventory, data and pricing structure is loaded into IMOPS, and the customer can go online to buy the part via credit card or purchase order if they are an existing customer,” Gross explains. “They can also track the status of the order online and view their order history.”

Tagging technologies become warehouse staples

In Oliver Wyman’s 2017 MRO survey released in April 2017, 68% of respondents asked about new technologies being deployed at their companies, stated they planned to introduce radio-frequency identification (RFID) tracking.Spares service and solution provider Satair plans to start implementing passive RFID tags—which draw on electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags attached to objects—into its parts packaging during the goods receipt process in pilot warehouses throughout 2017.

OEMs also have been innovative in this area, with the “factory of the future” idea given increasing prominence among airframe and engine makers. Airbus, Satair’s parent company, has piloted a visibility tag system that is in use on its assembly lines and is scheduled to make its debut either this year or in 2018. The use of GPS systems to track parts has become increasingly attractive to MRO companies in the past few years, with units having fallen considerably in price as well as seeing significant improvements in battery life.

The benefits of GPS adoption, according to Paul Kilmister, Satair’s global head of warehousing and transportation, will be in supporting internal visibility and continuous process improvement across its component inventory, which includes more than 50,000 different distributed parts for aircraft maintenance. He says Satair recently concluded hundreds of trials using GPS tags to follow material from its facilities to customers, including aircraft-on-ground shipments. AJW, meanwhile, says it is watching RFID tracking developments. It had considered implementing such a system across the parts-tracking process but concluded there were no tangible benefits to the aircraft supply chain.

Airline adoption

AAR

Scanning methods such as barcoding, are commonplace to keep track of parts in modern warehouse facilities.

Airlines looking for greater visibility in areas from parts to tooling are also looking at RFID and GPS platforms. Air Canada has been a proactive adopter of 2D and 3D barcoding, platforms it credits with decreasing the number of keystrokes its MRO staff must deal with. “Mobility has been a major theme of our transformation, and the logistics team was the first to launch this within Air Canada Maintenance by issuing tablet devices to our frontline teams,” Steer says. The tablets enabled them to move from a stationary workspace to one where transactions can be completed in real time.

Like other MROs, Air Canada has tapped into GPS systems that have been installed on certain high-value components. In turn, this has generated large quantities of data that Steer says has helped improve accuracy in decision making. “We’ve worked to equip these devices to use sensors that turn on and off depending on the airspeed and altitude of the aircraft,” he says. “We have also prototyped visual displays that show the status of specific components, which again provide our teams with valuable data to make better strategic decisions that ultimately impact our customers in positive ways.”

Southwest Airlines is also considering adopting tags. Speaking at Aviation Week Network’s MRO Americas in late April, Amanda Gower, the Dallas-based carrier’s senior manager for the powerplant supply chain, said the carrier is reviewing the possible use of barcoding for scanning components but concedes it is not quite there yet and still working on it.

Gower says one of its current systems performs the function of keeping track of parts. “Our Wizard system has a very robust regulatory requirement that prevents us from taking any parts that are not of the right configuration,” she explained.

Southwest is implementing Mxi Technologies’ Maintenix software across its Boeing 737 fleet starting next year as it looks to consolidate its management systems into one single network by 2019. It uses two maintenance software systems now—a legacy Wizard system, a version of Maxi-Merlin, as well as a Trax system acquired when Southwest took over and integrated the operations of low-cost carrier AirTran Airways in 2010. 

Where next?

AAR’s Gross sees an expansion of the company’s online portal systems to service broader functions. “Eventually, we want to expand so that we can feed more material for all our businesses online and not just the businesses that utilize the IMOPS platform,” he says. Meanwhile, Smith of AJW believes the next big innovation in warehouse management lies in mechanical and computerized picking systems. However, he also feels obstacles must be overcome before adoption can be more widespread. “Many companies across the world already operate fully automated warehouses. However, the challenge is building confidence in this type of system against a manual process, and all the variables that can occur in the picking process need to be considered,” Smith says.

He also predicts that complementing this will be the advent of voice-control software. “This will direct a worker to the next job to pick, along with an interactive 3D system to identify the quickest way to find the pick location,” he says. To date, AJW has looked into several prototype development ideas such as Microsoft HoloLens and Google Glass to research voice recognition and automated picking solutions, Smith says. However, while he believes all warehouses will utilize some form of voice recognition technology in the future, he does not see this happening in the near term: “We are a few decades away from this, as there are still financial and practical hurdles that need to be overcome to make it worthwhile.”

Satair intends to continue to focus on developing its software strategy for its network of warehouses. “It is unlikely we will see huge leaps in physical automation systems, but the real advantage comes with the software, middleware and applications that manage them,” says Kilmister. “We implemented a new automation system in our Ashburn [Virginia] facility last year, and we are further developing our automation system in Copenhagen this year,” he says. “Furthermore, we are currently in the middle of the search for a multi-million-dollar automation system for our Hamburg facility.”

Environmental factors will also influence Satair’s exploration of new technologies employed across parts-tracking processes and component warehouses. “We have to be on the lookout for new evolutions in GPS tags taking advantage of the next steps in power and batteries,” he says. “There is always interest in technology that makes us greener by reducing our carbon footprint and improving sustainability.” Steer of Air Canada shares Satair’s enthusiasm for GPS tagging and also believes artificial intelligence and drone technology platforms will help shape the future of the carrier’s maintenance division. c

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