Traditionally, bar code technology is used in product distribution, courier services, and point of sales (POS). However, it can also be particularly useful in maintenance processes, though its application in some industries, such as aerospace is not as well known, especially in Mexico and Latin America.
In order to better understand the application of bar code technology in maintenance processes, we must first understand that it is a form of automatic data collection. In the case of aircraft maintenance, it can produce a series of records that provide important information about the maintenance process. This information must be analyzed and duly interpreted to fully understand the process' potential.
This article will explore all the benefits of using code bar technology in the aircraft maintenance process.
What types of companies can implement bar code technology in their maintenance processes?
Clearly, before considering the implementation of this technology, we must understand its scope, benefits, and maintenance features, in other words, the related issues or expenses of this system. We must also understand that bar codes can be applied not only to airlines, but to any company in other sectors that may require maintenance performance indicators.
Undoubtedly, companies need more information about maintenance processes because of the processes' cost, and a related symptom, variability. Why does the cost of maintenance service vary when it is applied to two aircraft of the same type, or for that matter, to the same machinery in another industry?
Many maintenance engineers will answer that cost depends on several factors, such as incidents that occur during the operation, and in the case of airlines, the age of the aircraft, etc. However, the same service for the same type of aircraft should be completed in a similar period of time. Any additional or non-routine jobs and their cost and time, must also be considered. This also includes engineering orders, etc. Thus, in order to calculate the cost and allocate time for different services (A, 2Am C, P1, P2, etc.), older, historical data or something similar is used to estimate cost, time, and personnel budget for the repair.
Normally, this data is obtained from the maintenance system software that is used by the airline or company, if the system is updated and has reliable data. When there is no access to reliable data, the man-hours and cost used in the maintenance process are variable and will likely increase. If we want to keep control of the process and prevent variations, we must conduct a performance analysis. One option to do this is to use an automatic data collection system, such as bar code technology.
What are the benefits of using bar code technology?
The benefits of bar code technology can be divided in two categories: operational and information benefits.
Operational benefits are those that relate to the daily work inside the hangar. The execution of maintenance work or services demands that documents such as engineering orders, routine services, non-routine jobs, and general work orders be issued. The supervisor receives, reads, and assigns these documents to a technician, and records the technician's name and the date. He then has to capture these data in the airline's maintenance control system, which results in the double capture of information (on paper and in the system). Supervisors usually record this information at the end of their shift or at the end of their maintenance or service work, since their main goal is to complete the aircraft maintenance task at hand. Therefore captured data on the time spent completing certain maintenance tasks are only estimates rounded up and based on the supervisor's own experience, not that of the technician. This means that the data are not as reliable as they should be.
However, a well designed, implemented bar code system can solve these issues and speed up maintenance processes, particularly those activities that need to be recorded. The system makes technicians log in and record the work cards they have been assigned, so they can start work almost immediately. This system can also be applied to non-routine jobs and engineering orders. Therefore, the system has a record of all the service-related data: the individual who will execute the work, the material that will be used, and the aircraft's number. Further, the system automatically records the time it takes to perform the work, from beginning to end, without any double captures either on-line or in real-time.
Another requirement in aircraft maintenance is the need to track the aircraft's components because of their functional (aerial navigation) and economic importance. A bar code can be assigned to a component allowing every stage of its repair work to be recorded. The component can be tracked from its removal from the aircraft to its subsequent reinstallation. The bar code allows the system to maintain a record of the part number, the serial number, and the description of the component. The system can also locate the component and know exactly what type of repair work was performed.
The same can be done to materials. Bar codes can be assigned to rotational and consumable materials so they can be distributed to stations, warehouses, or maintenance bases. The system is then capable of recording what components were sent, received, or are in transit, as well as their description, part number, serial number, lot, etc.
Bar codes (or some other type of encoding, such as data matrix) can be assigned to tools that are subject to gauging. The system will associate this a bar code to the part contain information about its description, manufacturer, and the date of its next gauging. This can also be applied to tools that do not have to be gauged. In this case, the system can be used to control who uses the tool and when.
In addition to using bar codes to track the maintenance of tools, there is another, more obvious function that the system can perform: bar coding can be used to dispatch or receive material in the technical warehouse. Checking inventory directly, on a screen is certainly more comfortable and practical than looking on the shelves, where the item may not be found.
Without a direct record process in your system, all of these situations will involve a great amount of documentation, coupons, signatures, etc. Bar codes provide these types of records and allows more production in each man-hours used in the operation.
Yet, it will take time for a company to realize the benefits of information from bar coding because the system (or the database) needs to collect all the records that are necessary to perform an analysis. Then the information needs to be interpreted by knowledgeable and experienced people and it is the analysis that allows users to know and optimize maintenance times, materials used, etc.
Analyzing the information should be helpful for
- Maintenance planning
- Material planning
- Personnel planning
- Financial planning
Of course, the economic and man-hour benefits will vary for every case and system.
What do you need to implement a bar code system for aircraft maintenance?
The most important thing is designing a solution based on the maintenance system used by the airline. The best option is a system that contains all the maintenance records, accepts the use of bar codes, and is also capable of generating them.
Many systems might not be able to support bar codes, but this is not an obstacle. Medium or large airlines should encounter no problems if they have an alternate system to a bar coding, although small airlines or repair shops should have a very well-designed solution that will allow them to avoid unnecessary costs. Also, they might have to customize the document format and get some bar code readers, or laser or bar code printers, and PCs.
Companies that have more complete solutions can install wireless networks that enable the use of laptops or personal digital assistants (PDA). Larger or smaller quantities of consumables, such as tapes, toners, tags, etc., will also be required based on the situation and the company's needs.
How expensive is the implementation of a bar code system?
Generally speaking, the costs related to the implementation of a bar code system are affordable, but it will depend on the design of the solution and the company's specific requirements.
A well designed solution will optimize the use of equipment and represent major benefits if the solution is implemented in the nerve centers of the maintenance process.
The cost and accessibility of the solution will depend on the company's objectives and the amount or volume of consumables it requires. However, in my experience, airlines' operational issues, such as weather or damage caused to aircraft during normal operation, have an annual cost that is higher than the cost related to the implementation of an automatic data collection solution, especially if we consider the benefits that a system such as bar code will bring to the company.
Software and "humanware"
Although the implementation of a bar code system will allow you to monitor the performance of the maintenance process through more accurate data, the most important part of the system is analyzing the records.
This analysis can be performed using the maintenance system or through other data analysis systems. However, this is just the beginning of the process. Data interpretation helps understand what is happening in the maintenance process and will contribute to activities planning. Individuals, or the "humanware," in charge of the analysis must have experience in and full knowledge of the airline's maintenance process. They can then propose viable solutions according to each airline and its specific situation. A combined effort between the maintenance engineer and the industrial engineer will allow work standards to be defined for every team and every situation. This is another benefit of having accurate and reliable records.
Clearly, a bar code system will not solve every problem, but it enables the recording of information and helps detect trends in maintenance performance, which can work as alerts that let personnel continue working with high productivity rates and low costs. Eventually, there will be enough documentation and the maintenance process indicators to define work standards that can be used to obtain certification, such as ISO or any other aeronautics standards, for our process.
Is the bar code technology obsolete?
This technology has been in the market for many years and it has proven to be useful in different businesses. Therefore, it is a widely spread and commercial technology that
- is reliable,
- has equipment diversity,
- has brand and provider diversity,
- is well known, and
- is affordable.
Further, it will be available in the market for some time, so users will be able to obtain equipment, parts, and service from several providers.
Bar code technology is very useful in monitoring the performance of the aircraft maintenance process and in tracking components and operations in the technical warehouse. This technology speeds up the data recording processes in a maintenance system, making it reliable and avoiding human error. It will bring savings in the number of man-hours used in paperwork. Additionally, one of its most obvious benefits is that it allows users to perform an analysis of the data records that will contribute to more accurate maintenance, personnel, and financial planning (maintenance budgets).
About the author
Juan Francisco Segura is an industrial engineer specializing 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.