Printed headline: The People Factor
When you hear that robots are increasingly being used in MRO, what does your gut instinct say? Most likely, it is a reaction similar to that when you hear artificial intelligence could be used increasingly to predict how long an aircraft will be down for a maintenance issue or to diagnose aircraft problems faster.
There is a natural hesitancy, right? It is not that we are all Luddites, but often people fear new technologies will encroach on the way they do their jobs, which can be disconcerting.
Our cover story points out that Lufthansa Technik is using robotics to free up workers from repetitive tasks as well as those in cramped environments, so employees gain ergonomic improvements. The article also notes that no one has lost his or her job to a robot at the MRO.
Jetstar Group in Australia recently rolled out the virtual reality (VR) system it developed in-house for maintenance training. David Wells, head of engineering at the airline group, says Jetstar has seen immersive learning periods that are shorter than expected—about 30 min. compared to 3-3.5 hr. for Airbus A320 and Boeing 787 training since introducing the VR system. As a next step, Wells says, “We’re developing an augmented reality version of the training for iPads so it can be deployed to all maintenance workers.”
These are just a few examples of how technology is improving maintenance effectiveness and an employee’s job experience and knowledge, not eliminating their positions.
All of this takes people, and I doubt that will change for a long time, if ever.
But there are shortfalls in the system that should worry people.
Take what is happening at Southwest Airlines, with the labor strife between the mechanics’ union and the carrier. As Sean Broderick reported, “Southwest Airlines has asked a federal court to intervene in its battle with mechanics by forcing them to stop writing up minor maintenance issues as part of what the airline claims is an illegal job action designed to wreak havoc on the airline’s operations.” There were up to 62 aircraft out of service on one day since the increased write-ups started.
This is not good for anybody—the airline, mechanics or Southwest customers or airline passengers in general, who start questioning the quality of airline maintenance oversight.
Minor maintenance issues requiring write-ups probably did not proliferate suddenly. This appears to be part of the union’s negotiating power, and this is not the first time this situation has occurred at a U.S. airline.
As a result, it is likely Southwest and other Part 121 carriers will review their maintenance programs to prevent similar disruptions in the future.
Should we be concerned about leveraging robots in maintenance or leveraging maintenance as a bargaining tool?