Imagine the reduction in costs and improvement in control and efficiency if aircraft maintenance documents were as digitized and paperless as airline ticketing has become. The industry is moving in that direction, but still has a long way to go.
The firms with the best understanding of progress so far are vendors of maintenance software.
Corridor, a popular application for independent shops, especially airframe shops with back-shop repair units, supports paperless operations. Marketing Director Chris Kubinski says most of his customer shops have achieved “a near paperless environment.” This means they need only a single “wet” signature on a paper document per work order. “Most Corridor operators use electronic signatures at the task level, then physically sign a summary report of all the tasks performed, each task with their electronic signatures documented, in order to return to service at the end of the work order.”
Some Corridor users have achieved full electronic signoff. These fully electronic and paperless shops skip physical signatures even on final work orders.
Nevertheless, Kubinski still sees many shops that have not taken the first step to paperless processes. “Many operations are set in established processes and changing any process as central as paper task cards is difficult if there’s not a continuous process improvement goal in place. Companies must be willing to make a change.”
The Corridor marketer says going digital boosts productivity and reduces time required for regulatory audits. Once documents are digital, his software lets shop-floor personnel document findings, track labor and manage materials, all from a convenient handheld device.
Another widely used shop application, Pentagon 2000, supports e-documents in several ways, according to Executive Vice President Kirk Baugher. Paper task cards can be printed and signed, then scanned into the system with a link to an e-document. Or electronic task cards can be signed with one or more e-signatures at a workstation PC or on a mobile app running on an iPad.
“We don’t survey customers to determine what percentage use e-signatures,” Baugher notes. “But a majority of all Pentagon 2000 customers use e-signatures. In some cases, a customer may use e-signature for internal workflow purposes and perform paper sign-off separately to comply with an established FAA repair station procedural requirement.”
Baugher sees the main hurdles to going digital as resistance to change and not wanting to alter an established process if the change would affect the repair station’s manual, its quality-assurance manual or any other standard forms in use. Further, “external hurdles can include any changes that require FAA approval, which can be time consuming or disruptive.”
In addition, there may be customer resistance. Airlines’ in-house shops do not face this hurdle, but independent shops must follow customer requirements. “I have not heard of any prohibitions of e-signatures, but they may exist,” Baugher says. “But electronic sign-offs are just as valid as paper sign-offs as long as process is approved by the FAA.”
E-signatures may be legally valid, but customer acceptance is still necessary to make the business case for going fully digital.