Printed headline: The Blind Side
The airline industry has reached truly amazing levels of safety and reliability. But is success blinding us to the opportunities for further improvements, especially in efficiency?
We have seen tremendous progress in the ability for humans to communicate with each other, to communicate via machines. We can visualize reality through video games, translate languages in real time through earpieces and seemingly find any information we need in seconds on the internet.
These new technologies are changing the world, but is aviation keeping up? Are we pushing hard enough to realize the potential of these marvelous technologies to make airplanes even safer and easier to maintain?
Consider some of the trends in aviation and how we might leverage state-of-the-art information technologies to enhance safety and improve the economics of aviation:
- As aircraft become more and more reliable, there is a diminishing need for technicians. But reliability is also diminishing the hands-on experience of dealing with problems. In many cases, a pilot or technician now might not experience more than once a year what used to be a common issue more than once a year.
- The pool of technicians is shrinking and aging. Fewer people are entering the profession.
- Data can be a blessing, but too much is accessible but unstructured data, creating more confusion than insight.
- Aviation is progressing linearly, but the world is progressing exponentially. Are we accessing only the new information technologies in dribs and drabs and trying to force-fit those pieces that mesh with our traditional frameworks while missing opportunities to jump to whole new levels?
I will not try to address each of these trends. Let’s just look at three areas and where today’s technology might take us. These are analytics and prognostics; training; communication with data.
Ray Valeika advises airlines, OEMs, private equity firms and lessors. He was Delta Air Lines’ senior vice president for technical operations.
Analytics and prognostics
Data is opening the door to relationships and repeatability that can greatly enhance the effectiveness of maintenance. Unstructured data can cause confusion, but with the right analytics it can become a source of useful information. Analytics, especially combined with future sensor applications, can lessen our dependence on intuition and experience. These techniques can be tailored to how specific airlines operate, creating much more customized and directed programs rather than one-size-fits-all.
Other benefits of analytics are a reduction of inventory. Today we stock many parts “just in case.” But many expensive components are needed less than once a year. Another area ripe for improvement is the ratio of nonroutine worker hours to those planned for maintenance checks. In the past, it was roughly 2:1. Better-directed programs can greatly reduce this and make many more aircraft available for operation. Another example is resolving the “nothing found wrong” issues that bedevil maintainers. Ultimately, better analytics and tracking will mean reduced inventory and labor costs.
This is one area where today’s communications technology can be most useful. Everything from instantaneous language translation to virtual reality needs to be implemented. Virtual reality of seeing the part, the repair, the location, and then seeing animation of how fluids and electrical circuits flow and function can be greatly beneficial. Just think—if you only occasionally see a problem, how beneficial would it be to pull up a virtual reality display to update your experience?
For recurrent training, pilots use simulators. We may not have maintenance simulators, but we can certainly simulate MRO processes through virtual reality and other means.
The most basic and fundamental means of transmitting technical information and specifications is through manuals. The question is, in the existing format, are they relevant? In many maintenance shops, there are literally hundreds of manuals covering routine maintenance, structural repair, components, parts catalogs, tooling and procedures. To use them is a diabolical experience; they are time-consuming and often very difficult to navigate.
Manuals should be connected. The histories of parts, write-ups and repairs should be easily accessible. We should be able to communicate orally as well as by using keyboards. When a problem is downlinked from an aircraft, it should connect to the proper manual section, connect to inventory and display what was previously done with the part or aircraft. We should be able to “talk” to our manuals.
We have only scratched the surface on the potential of modern information technologies to enhance efficiency in MRO. We must be willing to discard the processes and procedures that are no longer efficient. OEMs, regulators and airlines can still do much more to connect and adapt to today’s exponentially changing IT reality.