Print headline: Fresh Perspective
As the newly appointed head of information technology (IT) at Monarch Aircraft Engineering (MAEL), I’ve been evaluating where the business is today and where it aims to be in five years, and I am gaining a deeper understanding of the industry.
Throughout this discovery process via conversations with colleagues far and wide, I see nearly endless possibilities for digitalization.
My recent background, albeit within transport innovation rather than aviation specifically, has been focused on partnering with forward-thinking, innovative startup companies to help drive technological change. On each occasion, this called for an agile environment with a compelling business offering, much like what we aim to create at MAEL. I have witnessed that these startups can bring a fresh outlook to industry issues.
Opportunities to use machine learning or artificial intelligence for predictive and preventative maintenance abound, but few organizations in the industry are actually adopting this technology. Remote inspections using drones or automation have been developed without really taking off. While 3D printing seems to be leading the disruption within the manufacturing industry and is being tried in some places in aviation, it hasn’t been picked up at scale in the MRO sector.
So what accounts for this reticence within the MRO sphere?
There are many factors behind this behavior. Obviously, a key requirement for any MRO is to ensure that aircraft are kept airworthy in a timely manner, remembering that they are all governed by national regulatory bodies. Maintaining proper compliance and safety standards is a No. 1 priority, and rightly so.
Automation on the shop floor might still be viewed as a risk to engineers’ jobs and, even if not the case, could be perceived as a cost burden rather than an investment in growing revenue streams. I surmise that the ownership of any data, whether aircraft- or maintenance-related, could also cause friction.
Align all this with human factors—including how people and organizations react to change—and you see that the industry falls within the late majority end of the innovative bell curve.
The MRO industry could help itself by adopting a standard approach to the acceptance of technology. For example, different authorities impose rules and regulations all with slight variations when it comes to digitalizing maintenance records, conducting remote inspections or using electronic approvals for tasks.
Where does this leave MRO businesses? There is an argument to say that we cannot influence the adoption and that it must be driven by the OEMs or operators. But if we do nothing, do we run the risk of being left behind or disrupted by new innovators in the industry?
Organizations already have started digitalizing their back office with varied examples of automation—use of virtual reality, digitalized planning tools and/or logistics. The industry now needs to ask the questions that challenge the current standards.
Why does technology need to be a threat to people’s jobs? Skilled manual labor will be essential for years to come, but surely technology—used in the right way—can only enhance or improve on this need. Can the use of machine-learning make aircraft even safer by predicting behavior? And crucially, why does there need to be an owner of the data? Why couldn’t some digital ledger such as blockchain be applied to take that argument away and provide data when it is needed in real time? There are efficiency, safety and environmental benefits to all of these, so why not implement them?
Regulators’ long-awaited promises to help speed technology adoption are now underway, but I believe there is also an onus on us, as businesses within industry and technology leaders, to act. There is a need for a fresh, more collaborative approach, and we all have a part to play in that.
I see an opportunity to create an industry-wide steering group comprising OEMs, airports, airline operators, owners and MROs to begin sharing ideas, innovating and exploring opportunities to work together for technology use in the future.
The group’s long-term remit would be twofold. First, influence and engage individual businesses, which can also be resistant to change, and then collectively work with the various regulators to drive technological change. The Lufthansa and Oerlikon model, with its memorandum of understanding for testing out additive manufacturing, is the type of initiative the ideal steering group should pursue. Second, proofs of concepts with OEMs that are openly trying to embrace technology could be established to demonstrate the value. We already have seen the use of drones for remote inspections being developed but not adopted; the group could be used as a platform for those ideas and more.
This is an exciting time for the aerospace sector, and the MRO industry has a significant role. Although the deployment of technology is challenging, managing the change and driving adoption are long-term goals we should all be pursuing.
Alex Farr, head of IT at Monarch Aircraft Engineering, previously was IT director at Transport Systems Catapult, an Innovation/R&D organization driving growth within the transport industry, specifically looking at Intelligent mobility.