Every day, airlines face the challenge to reduce operation and maintenance costs and they are forced to look for better options. Advances in information technology (IT) have leveraged the development of enterprise resource planning (ERP), business process management (BPM), corporate process management (CPM), and computerized maintenance systems (CMMS). Although these solutions have been designed for general purposes, some of their features can be applied to very specific organizations. Yet, though the number of solutions is increasing, there are currently only a few CMMS systems that can be used specifically in the aviation industry.
When evaluating a CMMS system, several factors have to be considered to make sure that the best solution is selected. First, the best selection is not always the most affordable, but is one that best covers the process' requirements and is able to bring future benefits related to time savings, better maintenance planning and resource optimization, and improved visibility of key performance indicators (KPI).
This is the first part of a two-part series.
The second part will cover the maintenance process and mobile computing.
Who should evaluate and select a CMMS system?
Selecting a CMMS system is no easy task, so choosing the correct person or persons to do the evaluation becomes crucial. It's necessary to involve people who are more familiar with the maintenance process than the system and who can transmit this information to the software developers.
One key question when looking for a system is "In what areas do we need help from the system?" Currently, CMMS systems for aviation can be composed of several modules that can be used as stand-alone applications, consitute a partial solution, or are used as a complete solution when all the modules in the system are selected.
It can be distracting if a selected system includes several modules, because decision-makers may focus on trying to implement a solution that has more modules than the organization requires. It can also create uncertainty among the employees who are in charge of evaluating the system, especially in the aviation industry since an aircraft's maintenance process involves several specialty areas. There is the risk that the person who is knoweledgable and best able to answer questions regarding that specific domain might be absent during a key moment in the evaluation or implementation process.
That is why it is crucial to clearly define the areas where a system might be helpful, considering the divisions that separate maintenance-related and operational needs. From that point, the staff best suited to carry out the evaluation and selection process can be engaged. This is particularly the case for airlines, third party aeronautical shops, or aircraft service centers. Based on these issues, in my experience, it is best to have a team that doesn't involve systems staff, at least in the beginning of the process, for reasons which I will explain later in this article.
What aspects should be evaluated?
Needs and requirements are obvious to maintenance engineers, thus, they are able to make a list of tasks that can be automatized. Some of these tasks are time consuming or repetitive, such as selecting and printing work orders, reviewing maintenance guides, allocating jobs to technicians, issuing work orders for non-routine jobs, scheduling aircraft that have to be repaired due to an unexpected event, etc. On the other hand, managers must be informed about what will happen with short and long term maintenance jobs for the fleet, so they are able to make the correct decisions or communicate the status of the fleet to the commercial deparment or executive management, whichever is most appropriate. The problems that can come from such a situation tend create the first doubts about whether a CMMS or ERP system is really needed.
CMMS or maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) systems for the aviation industry have evolved, and now include modules or applications that can provide reports containing summarized information or can communicate with other systems (what we commonly know as connectivity or open architecture). All levels of management levels should know how to use the system and get the information they need to have a general idea of the fleet's maintenance status. A user-friendly and practical system would be extremely helpful; otherwise, it could generate an adverse reaction and a natural "resistance" to its use due to its complexity.
Traditionally, the evaluation of a CMMS system should focus, in the first place, on those modules or features that will be useful for the specific maintenance system. They can then be analyzed comprehensively to learn their scope and functionality, although the main priority must always be satisfying the maintenance process' requirements.
From a technical standpoint, the following functionalities must be evaluated:
- Forecasting and maintenance job planning
- Integrating resources in a maintenance base
- Engineering: modifications, manuals, issuance of work cards and other maintenance documents
- Updating manufacturers' files or revisions
- Electronic distribution of information
- Tools and equipment
- Distributing and optimizing technical staff
- Warehouse and component tracking
- Integration with operations
These concepts refer to a technical and business experience, not a systems solution.
Furthermore, only those employees involved in these daily activities will be able to judge the system's utility more accurately. Thus, base on all of these factors, this is why the system should be evaluated by the systems department staff in the beginning of the evaluation process. This doesn't mean that others shouldn't be involved, but their most important task will be when their internal customer—the maintenance personnel—clearly defines the features of the system or systems that will be helpful. Too d this, the systems department staff will have to analyze the related technical aspects (platforms, servers, hardware, interfaces, etc.).
What airlines require a CMMS solution?
Not every airline might need a CMMS or MRO system. Large airlines probably have one in place, due to the complexity of their maintenance requirements, but this might not be the case for local or small airlines.
Thus, we can conclude that the need for a CMMS system depends on the size of the fleet and the maintenance control requirements. There are small airlines or air taxi fleets that control their operations using Microsoft Excel or Access—they even use MS Project for their forecasting or maintenance planning. In such cases, the best option is to have a local developer create an application that can link these applications to optimize the job. However, even with simple solutions, it is crucial to identify what the exact needs are, always complying with national and international standardization and airworthiness authorities.
This subject is much more relevant for medium and large airlines, since they must respect their itineraries and ensure their passengers' satisfaction, which involves resolving the complexities related to the amount of operations the airlines perform every day.
Generally speaking, any airline that is thinking about implementing a CCMS system or improving or modifying their current system must answer the following questions:
- What is the fleet's average age?
- Will the fleet grow in the following years?
- Will the maintenance base have the same growth rate as the fleet?
- Is the daily work exceeding or will it exceed the employees' abilities?
- Have the maintenance costs increased?
- Are the information and management processes related to maintenance slow?
- Does maintenance control have to be more robust?
- How much time is spent creating documents?
- How many employees are required for document management and printing?
- Does the maintenance process performance have to be optimized?
- Do we have to comply with maintenance standards regulated by a commercial alliance?
When most of these answers are affirmative, it is time to consider using a CMMS system.
The mosaic of systems in the aviation industry
Normally, airlines that have chosen to use systems to support their maintenance processes have various applications installed in their servers. They have add-on software specialized in specific tasks installed around the main system, and at some point, that might have involved learning about the system and building interfaces by the systems staff. This also involves renting or paying for several user licenses a year.
This is because enterprise software is more developed than software specialized for the aviation industry. In fact, it is very common to see software that has been customized in some way to the way processes are carried out in the aviation industry. This often results in a "wasted" percentage of the implemented system. Users should be very careful when selecting add-ons, because the rental fees can be too high for features that will not be used but cannot be separated from the software, creating occupied or idle space in the server. Fortunately, CMMS software is evolving and is now filling in those gaps. Therefore, the system or software should be carefully analyzed from every angle.
There are times when a mosaic of different systems can be more affordable, but it still means paying an additional cost for something that might not be fully used. This also affects the staff because it means that the airline will need aircraft maintenance staff that is also familiar with the use of two or more systems or software. This becomes a paradox, where the systems must help optimize processes, and consequently, reduce costs, but the airline has fixed costs (that can increase) for license fees and technical support for various systems, and has to have or hire staff knowledgable about such systems.
As a result, the best strategy is to carefully select a CMMS system that has enough modules to improve the way maintenance processes work, avoid add-ons as much as possible, and expand the solution with only those modules that become really necessary over time. It is also a good idea to "know how to use" the CMMS system in order to benefit from all its potential, because having a system that is partially used is like having a Ferrari to travel only a few blocks at a very low speed. The cost is extremely high for such a small benefit.
Of course, using add-ons is not a bad decision, nor is it inadequate, but it's important to note that they have to be selected very meticulously, considering all the benefits it can bring. The main idea is very simple: standardizing the use of a single CMMS system will allow the use of one platform, with the same philosophy about use and no significant changes for the user, and companies can avoid paying license fees or other services to use a mosaic of applications.
The challenge for CMMS developers for the aviation industry
Although airlines must look for, evaluate, and select the best available solution, developers must focus on an integral solution when developing a CMMS system.
The following factors must be considered:
- Size of the airline and fleet
- The possibity of implementing modules of a solution that can be customized to every situation
- Intutive and user-friendly environments
- Total connectivity and data interchange among its modules
- Orientation for its customers and users towards quality schemes
- Integration of report creators for each module
- Integration of ERP elements to provide managers with information
- Visibility of specific general indicators used in the aviation industry
- Integration with the supply chain, including material, components, shops, and technical warehouse
- Open architecture for communication with other systems
- Possiblity to use automatic data collection and mobile computing systems
All the previous elements will create a powerful, flexible, customizable, and easy-to-use platform, which will make the CMMS more appealing to both current users and potential customers.
The advantages of a CMMS system
Normally, the benefits of impelementating a system that helps manage and control maintenance are not immediate. To identify them, users must know the maintenance process perfectly, because, for example, aircraft can undergo a maintenance program where a P1 service is performed every 18 months, while a P6 service is performed every 108 months, with services in between. There are also components, such as landing gear, that might need deeper service every ten years. This means that every time an aircraft goes through maintenance service, there is an opportunity to get all the data that will be useful in the analysis and processing of information in the system.
Then, why do we want a CMMS system? The answer lies in the number of aircraft of the same type, becuase not all of them will have the same age or the same conditions. An airline might perform P4, P5, or P6 services in less than five years, due to its fleet's characteristics. Also, there are maintenance services that can be performed every 450, 900, or 1,800 flying hours. Under these conditions and according to the aircraft's operation requirements, enough data and knowledge can be generated to estimate a standard in minor services and help "medium" and long term planning. In such cases, data can be obtained quickier.
Therefore, a CMMS system is capable of bringing benefits after the third year following its implementation, and these benefits should increase gradually over time, especially when there is a long-term scenario for major maintenance activities.
If similar services must be executed in similar amounts of time for the same type of aircraft, the system's job is fairly simple. However, a medium or large airline can have two or more types of fleet, and every aircraft can be different ages and have different traits, complicating the analysis process. This is where a CMMS system becomes very helpful.
If employees input the aircraft's age, application periods for each service, additional jobs that have to be completed, general restrictions and rules for performing services, and other complementary data into the system, it can generate what-if situations faster than a person.
Work order generation for license plates and material to be used is also an important activity. When asked to print a work card, the system can insert the documentation for a specific license plate, te diagrams, material required for the job, or a series of tasks that are part of the work card. It is a way of optimizing man-hours for documentation and office tasks.
Another important issue is the availability of informatoin, since manufacturer's manual revisions, reports, and airworthiness guidelines can arrive at any time, and the updated information has to be available immediately. This is a situation in which electronic distribution can also save effort and paper.
In the bases and maintenances stations of some airlines, paper is still being used as the main communication medium ito notify of revisions or changes made to the manufacturer's manual or the airline's maintenance manual. This involves receiving information, editing the corresponding changes, printing a specific number of copies, and distributing them to the people involved. This is a long process, and often the updates become obsolete by thte time the manual process is completed, ... and the cycle begins again.
If the CMMS system can help in the electronic update and distribution of information, then the time spent on such tasks can be drastically reduced. Personnel simply have to log in the system to get the corresponding electronic documentation, and only the necessary documents are printed. Additionally, if the CMMS system has one or several modules for supply chain, it can calculate material demand and control materials in the warehouse on a daily basis.
Material planning is extremely important, especially when it involves high-cost materials, as is the case in the aviation industry, and more specifically, the Latin American aviation segment, where supply planning has to be made accurately and on time in order to avoid the extra costs and travel long distances when purchasing urgent materials. Moreover, a CMMS system that has various algorithms for demand forecasting and electronic and automatic purchase order placement can be much more effective.
Also, a CMMS system with a module or application for component repair shops can expand visibility into maintenance areas and the supply chain, because it informs users about the number of components repaired daily and which ones are useful. In doing so, the system acts as a starting point in decision-making and whether, for example, to keep certain materials in stock.
Of course, shops need production control to inform them of the status—delayed or on time—of the components they repair. Since demand is extremely important for a shop, the system has to send alerts about any missing material allowing the employees responsible for the shop to simply look at their screen and make a decision or notify managers about an event. CMMS systems can also provide control and visbility of land components, whether they are sent to third-party repair shops or repaired in-house.
There are many other benefits related to a good CMMS system for the aviation industry. To summarize, it helps define a standard time range for the process and maintenance jobs that have to be executed, creates visibility and manageability of information, saves costs, and optimizes man-hours, maintenance job management, and space and time in the maintenance base.
The economic advantages are too complicated to discuss here, because such an assessment depends on the situation of each airline. However, we can mention two quick examples that can be used to calculate your specific situation:
- Savings are possible when acquiring less repairable components, based on how the system follows up and controls them. Being extremely conservative, benefits are estimated to represent 1 to 3 percent of the total annual purchase of components.
- Another way to see benefits is through the optimization of maintenance jobs. If the space and number of days spent on maintenance can be optimized, the number of days that an aircraft spends on land can be reduced. For example, if there are fifteen aircraft scheduled for maintenance and the aircraft can "save" one day fonor each of them, there will be fifteen days where the hangar will be available allowing other aircrafts to be serviced. Fifteen days that would otherwise see no revenue can then become fifteen days of profit.
As with any other tool, a CMMS system that is used correctly can be extremely useful, especially if it provides users with the power and flexibility they require.
This concludes part one of a two-part note.
Part two will discuss the maintenance process and mobile computing.
About the author
Juan Francisco Segura is an industrial engineer specialized in processes and automation. He has worked for the Universidad Iberoamericana, in Mexico City, as a computer technology consultant in the area of physics, arranging electronic and computing equipment for their labs. During the last six years, he has worked as a computer professor and in the aviation industry in the area of aircraft maintenance planning, where he participated in the selection of a maintenance planning solution. He was the leader of the bar code for maintenance and the airline's process development and analysis projects.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org