Printed headline: E-Signature Movement
Documents, forms and records drive aircraft maintenance by highlighting required inspections and repairs and ensuring these actions are met. Originally, all documents were paper; now many paper maintenance records are scanned into PDFs for management in systems such as AirVault, Stream and FLYdocs.
The next logical step is use of electronic documents from the start and validating authenticity with electronic signatures. Aircraft aftermarkets are somewhere between the second and third steps, with perhaps 5-10% of records digitized and validated by e-signatures.
The third-step benefits are many, including faster work closure, more accurate and visible data, reduced data-management costs, easier access to data for analysis and avoiding lost or destroyed records that require expensive rework. One IT provider estimates digital documents increase maintenance productivity 5-20%. Another reports that implementing digital task cards has reduced check labor 10-42% and turnaround times 20%.
Oliver Wyman Partner David Marcontell believes the biggest gain from digital docs may be avoiding rework caused by missing paper records. John Maggiore, managing director of maintenance and leasing at Boeing Global Services, says immediate priority should be given to electronic technical logs and digital task cards.
Going digital has some major upfront costs. Information technology systems must be upgraded, staff trained and processes changed. Regulators must be satisfied. These costs are significant for documents used internally by a maintenance unit and much greater for documents that will be passed on to customers, lessors, suppliers and other parties. This makes going digital toughest for MROs that work for multiple airlines in many nations.
Using e-signatures—passwords, biometrics, personal identification number (PIN) codes or any digital device that validates the signer’s identity—is just the first rung. The biggest challenge for extending electronic documents through the maintenance supply chain is standardizing electronic formats and getting wide approval for both electronic documents and e-signatures.
In July 2017, the Air Transport Association’s (ATA) e-business program published Spec 2500 for digitized aircraft transfer records. The program has published or is working on standards for e-signatures and digital documents for electronic logbooks, release certificates and work packages. Ken Jones, ATA’s director of electronic data standards, says, “The next steps are for the community to adopt, then for airlines, lessors, manufacturers, MROs and IT providers to implement.”
Meanwhile, some companies are also looking at blockchain as an alternative digital record. Jones says the distributed ledger could be beneficial. However, he notes, “It’s important to have standards to identify a part number, serial number, flight hour, flight cycle, removal and install as well.”
Makers of MRO software have the best view of the digital drive.
The latest version of Ultramain System’s MRO software supports full paperless system-of-record operations with e-signatures for airlines as well as MROs. Product Manager John Stone says half of Ultramain users are now paperless, a share that will grow as older users upgrade to the new version and new users come onboard.
Ultramain customers use e-signatures for electronic logbooks, digital task cards, digital forms, electronic nonroutines and more. The paperless system covers supply, line, base and shop maintenance. Digital records could also be used for tally, towing, process and duplicate inspection sheets as well as engineering service requests. One customer is moving more than 600 forms to digital records.
Ultramain e-signatures have been approved by regulators in 11 countries, although more than just e-signatures are necessary for electronic task cards. “Task stamping, shift handovers and other electronic annotations are needed,” Stone stresses. And as tasks are annotated, the entire card must be nonreversible.
Haeco Hong Kong is now using Ultramain paperless task cards with e-signatures to execute third-party maintenance. Haeco customers provide PDF cards, and the MRO returns these PDFs executed, stamped, inspected, annotated and electronically signed. Fully paperless, Haeco never prints PDFs, instead executing work in optimized steps using data extracted from PDFs. Then digital entries update mechanics’ progress in real time for managers. Ultramain is now implementing a similar system for Singapore Airlines Engineering.
Along with a lack of data-exchange standards, Stone notes other challenges to paperless maintenance. For example, OEM task cards are organized by specific task. They are not optimized as a sequence of tasks, including airworthiness directives, service bulletins and nonroutines, to be performed most efficiently once a panel is opened. That optimization must be done by an airline before sending the cards to an MRO.
IFS Maintenix has been supporting e-signatures since 2008, and customers that use paperless maintenance operations include Qantas, Air France and KLM, says Mark Martin, product line developer. Two other customers are deploying e-signatures, and another one is set to go live in 2019.
Maintenix e-signatures have been certified by the FAA, European Aviation Safety Agency and regulators in Australia and Canada. The software-maker designed its digital capability in accordance with the FAA’s Advisory Circular 120-78A on e-signatures. Maintenix e-signatures now are passcodes, but the software can also support swipe cards, a fingerprint-protected USB key or other physical token. E-signatures can be used on digital versions of airworthiness releases, maintenance releases and documents that support releases.
Martin says companies implementing e-signatures usually reengineer processes to exploit digitized documents. This requires accessing MRO software on mobile devices. But a recent IFS survey showed that only one-sixth of respondents could access all required software on their mobile devices. Martin thinks that will change as aviation companies prioritize mobile computing for investment. He also argues that software-as-a-service solutions could increase adoption, especially for line maintenance.
Since Version 9.10, Swiss-AS’s AMOS software has enabled PDF/A documents, the archive version of PDFs, to be electronically signed. Customers use a private key that is verified by a public one. AMOS customer EasyJet has been using e-signatures for work orders and task cards since November 2016, and Jet Airways has been using e-signatures for work orders for several years.
Austrian Technik has been authorized by the FAA to use AMOS e-signatures for internal component release certificates. The software-maker is now seeing very high interest in e-signatures, especially combined with the new AMOS mobile solution, and is hosting seminars and webinars on the technology. CEO Ronald Schaeuffele says it takes 6-12 months to implement and get approval for e-signatures.
Commsoft’s OASES MRO IT system supports e-signatures for nonroutine cards and line defects now and will support routine tasks soon, says regional manager Julian Beames. Mechanics and inspectors sign off using PINs or another method, including biometrics. OASES allows both techs and up to two inspectors to sign off on each task, and cards can be easily audited.
Although e-signatures have been available since 2016, Beames expects adoption will increase with new customers using e-signatures from the beginning. But he notes that implementation requires building a business case and consulting all affected parties: internal departments, regulators, customers and possible lessors. Beames says the business case must recognize costs of additional or new IT equipment, retraining and internal process changes. “Demonstrating financial benefits can be challenging,” he says.
Resistance to e-signatures documents is lessening, but acceptance by all parties is still sometimes a barrier. Beames recommends early engagement with all parties, especially in production, and piloting e-signatures before final approval.
EmpowerMX’s FleetCycle software concentrates on maintenance production. It is now implementing electronic task cards for both routine and nonroutine maintenance at a major U.S. carrier. Senior Vice President Mark Shulz says recent implementations have taken 14-16 weeks, and he expects more adoptions. FleetCycle software, which can also work with paper cards or combinations of paper and digital cards, is used by American, Delta Air Lines, United and Southwest Airlines as well as Embraer, AAR and Coopesa. Shulz sees increased acceptance of electronic maintenance data and e-signatures in the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Trax software supports Jazz Aviation’s move to e-signatures and digitized task cards. Maintenance Manager John Hensel says it had become almost impossible to manually analyze a C check, given the 500 or so paper task cards. Supervisors had little time to supervise, paper meant more walk time, and the ability to assess manpower availability was limited. He is looking to optimize his maintenance program, reducing both labor costs and downtime.