Most of American industry has already digitized paper records, and airlines have been leaders in digitizing their sales and distribution data. But the digital revolution has been slow in MRO and aftermarkets for a number of reasons.
The necessary concern with safety leads to intense attention to the integrity of maintenance records, reinforced by regulators. Further, individual companies—OEMs, MROs and airlines—have developed their own data standards and processes, which are still imperfectly standardized by collaborative efforts.
Different nations have different rules about records and the acceptance of digital techniques, including electronic signatures. These differences pose major problems in digitizing records for a global industry.
Finally, there is the whole question of data ownership: How much data should be shared, with which partners, on what terms and how should agreed-upon sharing policies be enforced?
Nevertheless, progress is being made in digitizing maintenance data. The potential gains are simply too great for anyone to be satisfied with the old paper chase. One often-cited advantage of digitization is faster and more efficient reviews of maintenance records when an aircraft comes off lease and goes to another airline. Streaming electronic records around the world is far less cumbersome than shipping and examining boxes of paper.
As in other areas of airline operations, digitizing maintenance records will not only enable airlines to do existing jobs more easily but will enable things not possible in the old paper world. Paper records are largely useless for the kind of big data analytics airlines increasingly want to do. Digitized MRO and usage data is ripe for this kind of analysis.
So airlines and MRO providers are moving forward, with the help of some specialized IT shops, and they are backed by some major aerospace OEMs.
For instance, AirVault, now owned by GE Aviation, stores and manages digital records for 34 airlines, MROs and lessors, and expects more growth in 2018, according to Sean Moser, vice president in GE Aviation’s Digital Solutions.
AirVault can digitize and store any maintenance document, including work cards, task cards and FAA 8130 or European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) airworthiness certificates. But the system is not limited to digitized paper records. Many carriers use AirVault to store images and videos such as borescope inspections, which can be searched, viewed and streamed by the system. Most customers use AirVault to store records for maintenance or regulatory audits.
During a lease term, storage, indexing and data fields are tailored to each user to allow them to retrieve, report or analyze data as they prefer. As lease transfer nears, AirVault’s AVRAD product allows digitized lease-return documents to be electronically delivered.
GE is now updating AVRAD so it will organize digitized documents according to the checklist format of each lessor. “With the right metadata tagging, documents can be auto-populated into checklist structures during an asset’s lease period, significantly streamlining lease return,” Moser explains.
He argues that AVRAD and AirVault’s new lease-return tools will drastically reduce work for both lessor and airline. Rather than spending months searching paper documents, airlines can share digitized data for remote review by lessors. The new version of AVRAD will also have project management tools to track checklist progress, collaborate on resolving issues and transfer records in the Airlines for America (A4A) Spec 2500 format.
Moser predicts aircraft maintenance will eventually move to all-digital record-keeping. But he sees that some airlines are still using paper and others keep both paper and digital records due to different regulatory requirements. “Lack of standardization in regulatory requirements for document retention is the biggest challenge,” he says. Adoption of the A4A’s Spec 2500 initiative to standardize transfer records and acceptance of electronic signatures will be necessary for further progress. While AirVault supports e-signatures, few customers now use this technology.
Moser insists that concerns with data security should not hinder digitizing documents. AirVault has strong security protocols and can be audited to track who can see what. “Robust multi-tenancy controls prevent customers from seeing other customers’ data,” he says. Moser believes digital record-keeping can actually improve data security by providing permission-based access to specific documents.
GE continues to invest in AirVault, to add new functions and better connectivity. A conference in February will tap users’ ideas on development priorities.
Moser stresses that AirVault’s Web-index allows each user to determine its unique data fields. And AirVault’s services, including MRO Connect and Error Correction Workflow, will streamline document review from third-party MROs.
Boeing has a competing solution for digitizing aircraft asset and aftermarket records, according to John Maggiore, managing director of maintenance and leasing solutions at Boeing Global Services. The OEM offers AerData’s Stream solution for generating, analyzing and sharing digitized data. “Secure and web-enabled, Stream manages records over the entire history of the aircraft and is proven to save costs over aircraft life and during redelivery,” he says.
Stream digitizes all aircraft maintenance records—typically, work packages, shop visits, technical and flight logs, component certificates, airworthiness directives, service bulletins and repair and modification records. Digitized records cover all assets—aircraft, engines, auxiliary power units and landing gear.
Stream now supports 70 customers, including major airlines, lessors and MROs. Over half a billion documents from 9,000 assets are in the system.
Usually, all of an aircraft’s records are digitized. But Maggiore says some customers choose not to digitize records over a certain age, instead digitizing only critical records and not superseded work packages.
During a lease, Stream can be the go-to system for all maintenance records. It captures, validates and creates workflows, ensures all required documents are accounted for and keeps records end-to-end. Accessible securely over the web, Stream can give lessors access to documents and enable them to approve these remotely, ultimately shortening lease returns.
Fast-access indexing can be customized for each client, and Stream has a powerful optical character-recognition search tool. Access is by DVD or memory stick, secure web connection or by the new, editable Stream Interactive.
Maggiore says smart use of Stream during a lease will save time and effort at lease-end. “By capturing, indexing, validating and creating the right work flow during the lease, Stream ensures records meet requirements of the lessor or owner at end-of-lease.” Instead of six months of rearrangement and inspection, lessors can use a mainly online process. “Proactive use of Stream during lease avoids expensive end-of-lease scenarios that operators dread,” he notes. Some inspectors do spot-check paper records, but almost all reviews are conducted online with Stream.
Like AirVault, Stream supports e-signatures. But only 5-10% of Stream’s documents are now e-signed. Maggiore says almost every airline is considering e-signatures and argues that “an airline could cut 50-60% of paper-based records overnight by moving to e-signatures.”
Maggiore says Stream’s security controls are strong and data privacy and integrity are guaranteed: “Security and user permissions can be set at the document level if customers choose to input sensitive documents.”
One hurdle to wider digitization is the cost to customers of changing processes. But Maggiore argues return on investment strongly favors shedding paper. Standardization of requirements is also necessary, and Boeing is working with ATA and the Aviation Working Group on that front.
Boeing recently released a new version of Stream with better integration with maintenance systems and electronic technical logs. It is implementing Spec2500 data exchange and is developing project management software for lease transitions. Boeing now pre-loads its airplane delivery records in Stream.
Digitized records are attractive to MROs, lessors and operators. Andrew Kemmetmueller, the new chief digital officer of global MRO AAR, says digital record-keeping enables a lessor to easily monitor how well-maintained an aircraft is. “A leasing company wants to know the value of its aircraft on return. To be competitive, lessors want to track how many hours have been put on the aircraft and what kind of hours they are—into desert airports at high altitudes or in cold weather,” he says. Digital usage and repair data thus give lessors and succeeding operators reliable information on aircraft value.m“It benefits both the airline and the leasing company. But it’s more advantageous for leasing companies because it provides a more accurate view of aircraft use, which means their lease transfer is much easier.”
Kemmetmueller says digitally sharing this very useful data is not a technical problem but a business problem. He believes 80% of required data is already or can be digitized for sharing. “But to use it, you need relationships with unions, network service providers and other companies to get permission to use their data,” he says. To gain permission, airlines and lessors have to offer something in return. For example, a leasing company could offer a lower lease rate to an airline in return for data access.
In any case, AAR is moving in this direction. “We don’t want there to be a digital world of maintenance and a real world of maintenance,” Kemmetmueller explains. “We want the world in which we do maintenance to include both worlds.” So AAR is talking to airline customers about a number of data innovations, including Blockchain.