Mobile development for the MRO environment continues to move beyond extending existing software packages by developing dedicated apps that leverage operator data and put more information, and communications capabilities, in technicians’ hands.
While mobile continues to expand throughout hangars, often connecting enterprise-level software with technicians on the floor, line maintenance is an emerging area of focus. The reason is simple: It is the MRO segment that has the greatest immediate effect on an airline’s flight schedule.
“An airline’s performance depends on line maintenance,” says Arun Navneethakrishnan, Ramco’s aviation solution advisory manager for the Americas. “It’s about making sure your line maintenance activities are really efficient and quickly turn around an aircraft on its scheduled time, rather than having it waiting for service on the ramp.”
Ramco, long a provider of enterprise-level MRO software, has been expanding into mobile, with line maintenance among its areas of focus. In late 2015, the company launched its Anywhere suite of native mobile apps. Among them is Mechanic Anywhere, which provides both the information— from general documentation to specific task cards—and functionality—such as data entry—that front-line mechanics needs to perform their tasks.
Early adopters include several airlines that have Ramco systems running, including Republic Airways and Malaysia Airlines, as well as a large air ambulance service provider. This makes sense, as the apps, while native, are an easy add-on to Ramco’s suite. But Navneethakrishnan is confident that the company will soon have a customer using the apps alone.
Ramco’s apps were developed initially for the iOS platforms, but Android versions are planned by 2020. The company sees geographic variances in platform preferences. Most customers in the Americas and Europe prefer iOS and, by extension, Apple devices. Android has a stronger foothold in the Asia-Pacific region, a factor Navneethakrishnan chalks up to the wider variety and cheaper price points among Android devices.
While mobile often is associated with iOS- and Android-powered systems, they are hardly alone in the space. British Airways CityFlyer (BACF), an early electronic tech log (ETL) adopter, introduced a mobile version of the program on Panasonic Toughbook tablet PCs in May 2012. Developed by Nvida and running Microsoft Windows, the system soon was feeding log data automatically into the airline’s Oases maintenance software—the first live connection between an ETL and core maintenance software, Nvida says. In 2013, BACF deployed Toughpads, taking the mobility a step further with lighter devices.
Providing real-time data from the line back to airline operations provides myriad benefits. Communication between technicians and supervisors can focus on tackling specific issues rather than obtaining generic progress reports, and airline planners will have greater insight on real-time aircraft status. As mobility in line maintenance evolves, operators and service providers are realizing that the most important factor is ensuring the mechanic has the right information at the aircraft, or can get it quickly and easily.
Empowering the mechanic with all available resources is the primary goal of AireExpert, a line-maintenance tool developed by Engio.
“The airplane is broken somewhere and has a very specific problem,” explains Andy Hakes, Engio’s executive vice president for airline operations. “Many times, the people with relevant knowledge and expertise aren’t where the airplane is. If they are inaccessible, all that knowledge and expertise is useless. We see communications as the tool for bridging that gap.”
AireExpert starts with a standard task list common to most line maintenance environments. It is then customized to an operator’s needs. A browser-based interface allows supervisors and other executives to see what is happening at all times, and the smartphone’s connectivity allows the line mechanic to communicate with internal experts as needed.
“The browser-based functionality is meant to get everyone on the same page immediately, regardless of who they are or where they are,” Hakes explains. “The goal is to give people in maintenance control, technical services and engineering the ability to interact with mechanics as if they were at the airplane along with the mechanic.”
By loading the basics on the app and providing access to in-house experts via voice, text, or video, AireExpert increases a mechanic’s expertise level. Hakes says such an approach is key for an industry facing a shortage of skilled technicians.
“The level of knowledge that a specific technician has shouldn’t play a major role in a successful outcome,” Hakes says. “Airlines already have a ton of knowledge and expertise that is locked up in their organization. What they have a challenge doing is unlocking that value and expertise and getting it to the people who need it, when they need it.”
Launched earlier this year after a nine-month beta-testing period, the stand-alone app is in the evaluation phase at three airlines. It is also being used by AireExpert’s own line maintenance division. The Buffalo, New York-based company of experienced maintenance experts and tech gurus set out to build the app but soon realized that an opportunity to support airlines existed at Buffalo-Niagara International Airport. Presented with the chance to tap their own expertise and create a real-world lab to help test their product, they jumped at the opportunity.
Besides providing a real-world development lab, having its own line maintenance operation provides Engio with constant reminders of how important its core objectives are to the product’s success. Besides equipping mechanics with as much of what they need as possible before they head to gates, Engio is committed to adapting its tools to existing processes wherever possible.
“It’s extraordinarily difficult to build something when you don’t know the space,” says Hakes, whose career includes nearly two decades in maintenance at UPS. “We often see airlines trying to change their processes to meet the needs of the software they bought. A much better approach is helping people do things the same way as they’ve done them, just much more efficiently.”
Another priority is a short implementation time. AireExpert’s out-of-the-box approach means that an airline can be up and running in a month or less, with customization extending this a bit, Hakes says.
“The initial content is contained in the app itself,” he explains. “We’re not building a knowledge-base sort of solution. We don’t want to compete in that space. We use our application to connect the people that have knowledge to the people that need knowledge.”
Rapid deployments are being combined with larger-scale projects to produce significant transformations in stages. Finnair in late 2016 became the first customer for IBM’s Mobile At Scale (MAS) offering, an app design and development service that rolls out iOS apps over a multi-year period.
Tailored specifically for organizations integrating multiple iOS apps into a digital transformation plan, MAS customers get access to IBM apps to jump-start their projects. Development is done in special “garages,” or dedicated development labs that IBM has around the globe, where customers have dedicated teams working to customize apps for their needs.
Finnair started with two apps, Inspect and Turn and Assign Tech, developed for the line maintenance environment. Inspect and Turn provides mechanics customized schedules matched with related task cards, technical documentation, and analytics-driven recommendations. Mechanics can input operations data and use the mobile device’s inherent abilities to communicate via text, voice, and video calls. Access to aircraft-level-specific defect and deferral information also is available, and new discrepancy reports can be submitted and appended with photos or videos.
Assign Tech gives supervisors an overview of ﬂight schedules, maintenance tasks and mechanic availability. The app analyzes the variables and recommends optimal shift assignments, factoring in the skills and certiﬁcations of each mechanic. Push notiﬁcations provide alerts on delays or other issues that require immediate attention.
Finnair rolled out both apps in early 2017 and has been steadily adding enhancements—and seeing results.
“The first benefits we have seen [are] the increased visibility and transparency for the maintenance process,” explains Juha Karstunen, digital transformation lead for Finnair Technical Services. “Employees are now able to report progress in real time [and] communication is also improved through new smartphones.”
Predictably, there have been challenges, yet the carrier prepared well for them. Aware of the major leap from traditional maintenance processes that a mobile implementation represents, Finnair included front-line technicians in the design process. This accomplished two goals, Karstunen explains.
“As an old industry, we have lot of old paper-related processes and people have long careers where they have [worked] with traditional procedures,” he says. “Involving the employees who will be using the apps into the development work from the very beginning helped a lot, as well as having change agents among employees with the right attitude towards the change.”
Karstunen calls the initial roll-out the “foundation” for future services. “We will continue the development of apps towards a paperless maintenance process,” he adds.
Mobile implementations are part of the broader migration to paperless processes. A Capgemini/GE Aviation survey earlier this year found that 44% of respondents—largely airlines and MRO providers—are on track to be paperless by 2020 (see page MRO20).
Going mobile in line maintenance helps eliminate paper, but it also creates the need to ensure information is getting to the necessary places. For instance, a tech log must remain on the aircraft, with copies of the most recent aircraft status available on the ground. Other copies must go to various airline departments—from maintenance control to finance—for recordkeeping and reconciliation of items such as fuel.
The software providers are addressing these needs in various ways. Ramco has a mobile task-card digitization program that turns scanned documents into electronic forms that can be signed digitally. Nvida’s apps feed data into its Converge Aviation hub. The data-management platform runs on Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing service and supports multiple platforms, including Android and iOS.