Airlines struggle every day to reduce costs, maintain the level of customer service, and have more efficient processes, and this puts more pressure on line maintenance supervisors and engineers. This is where a maintenance personnel management system can be useful. In the first part of this series, I discussed the features of such system. In this final part, I will focus on the system's planning horizon and possibilities.
The planning horizon
The system will be useful not only for the daily maintenance, but it will also provide information that will help maintenance managers or executives make decisions that will help solve problems in a short term or create strategies to improve the current process. Let's assume that one of the key performance indicators (KPI) is maintaining operations on time at least 85 percent of the time, or avoiding keeping an aircraft on land due to maintenance issues over 5 percent of the time compared to the fleet's average flight hours. Certainly, these are not easy tasks, and the system has to be able to help with all the necessary information, for example when
- The regular time frame for performing equal jobs on aircraft of the same type is too long or has a lot of variations. The system could generate time frame statistics about how long it takes different technicians to perform the same job.
- There are frequent deviations between the expected staff and the available staff. The system has to send out a notification and generate statistics about the forecasted man-hours in a specific period and compare them to the records of those technicians that were available.
- Non-routine jobs or jobs that are not considered by the system are opened frequently. It is very useful to know when non routine jobs exceed a limit amount, because it helps generate an inquiry that will determine the causes.
- More technical staff is needed to satisfy the maintenance demand. The system is capable of assigning jobs in an anticipated way and sending alerts when the amount of work exceeds the man-hours available to execute it. This allows to hire personnel or pay overtime.
- Supervisors or managers need to know the number of staff budgeted. The system will provide real data about the man-hours available and the site where they were used, as well as the extra technical staff that was required for the job. If the system is fed with the costs, then it can perform an accurate calculation of the budget and help the planning process.
The previous information will help to plan for technical staff, because it provides elements to support the answers to the following questions:
- How many technicians do we need?
- What expertise should they have?
- When do we need them?
- Where do we need them?
- What will be our budget for the technical staff required?
When we have responses to these questions, we can generate short and long term scenarios that will allow to have the time necessary to analyze what has to be done and will help develop a preventive behavior instead of a reactive behavior.
Thus, the system will provide information that will help managers make decisions regarding the strategies they must follow and provide supervisors enough technical staff to execute those jobs related to line maintenance.
On the other hand, the system can assign jobs to the technicians who are qualified to perform them; it can even reassign personnel according to specific restrictions or priorities, allowing supervisors to anticipate the jobs and the teams that will execute them, and give supervisors more free time to monitor jobs that are executed directly in the aircraft, to ensure that everything is done on time.
Other Possibilities for the System
In large facilities, such as an aircraft maintenance base or airport platforms, the minutes spent in transportation become extremely important. Of course, supervisors and some technicians have radio communication devices that allow them to communicate with each other and the line maintenance office. However, such devices are not capable of sending information to the system, nor can the system send voice or audio data to supervisors (at least, not yet). Therefore, the system could be extended through wireless networks and devices known as personal digital assistants (PDA).
This solution assigns a job to the technician through his or her PDA, which is connected to the system. If the data contained in the system indicates that the technician can finish the job before the end of the shift, the system will assign another task to perform when the previous one is completed. The technician can also verify the system for the termination of the job, sign electronically, view the next assigned job, request material, document milestones, generate non-routine reports, request support from the supervisor, review procedures from the manufacturer's manual, view simple diagrams, etc. This helps automate part of the process and generate an increase in productivity.
On the other hand, the supervisor can know the physical location of each technician whenever they need to. There is more good news. In addition to the benefits of such a system, its infrastructure is completely viable and more cost-effective than many managers may think.
A system such as the one I described has several operational and process benefits, and the most important are
Automatic allocation. Once all the parameters are fed into the system, the supervisor can validate or correct allocations in a few minutes; he or she does not have to worry about creating work teams or knowing the technicians' availability, because allocations will only contain those technicians that are available at that moment.
Agility in providing solutions. The system can perform changes to the allocations in less time than a supervisors, and can generate proposals with more than two possible combinations. This speed is tangible when assigning shifts, if the system is fed constantly with the technical staff records, and when assigning jobs, because it views the status of the maintenance personnel in real time.
Operational decision support. The system will send notifications when there is not enough staff to perform the scheduled work load, when a technician has to renew his or her license, when it determines that staff will only be assigned to priority jobs, etc. Of course, all this information will have to be fed into the system to be able to establish criteria that determine when a notification has to be sent. That way, the supervisor will be able to focus on the solution, not the problem.
Generation of planning information. The system should be able to generate useful information for the daily operations and short- and long-term technical staff planning. For the daily operations, it can generate allocation proposals that will show the supervisor different scenarios, where he or she will have to decide the best way to distribute jobs and staff. Additionally, with recent historical information, he or she can generate scenarios for the following shift, day, or week. These scenarios will allow the supervisor to know what measures will need to be taken. For the short- and long-term technical staff planning, the system can generate reports based on accurate records, that will allow managers or executives in the maintenance areas to calculate the number of man-hours and the budget required. In other words, they will have information to support the answers to the questions "how many?" "with what expertise?" "when?" and "where?", for several planning horizons.
Potential users of such a system might think that it will be helpful in many other tasks. However, in this article I only mention those situations in which help is meaningful and the system gives users their money's worth.
Clearly, if the system works for such a dynamic maintenance as the aircraft line maintenance, where problems have to be solved immediately in order to maintain operations, it will also be useful in scheduled maintenance and other types of maintenance that are also dynamic and performed in companies that belong to different industries. Therefore, we can say that this is a maintenance system.
Things to consider
Obviously, a small airline will have a smaller amount of technicians, so such a system would only represent an unjustified expense. In those cases, it might be better to use a control system throughout the company, but with different purposes. A system such as the one I described can be applied to small and large airlines, where the number of technicians is important and maintenance becomes a complex task due to the number of airplanes, operations, and other issues that might arise with different natures and require different solutions.
On the other hand, in terms of programming, one of the most important and possibly, most complicated issues to solve is the ability of the system to communicate with other systems. This will be an issue for its developers. Assigning technicians does not seem to be a complex issue for developers, as long as they use information contained in the same system; the problem is how to transmit, from the main maintenance system, the information about the jobs that need to be executed. There are not many maintenance systems for the aviation industry and those that exist can be different; fortunately, these systems are already being developed on more common platforms that are also used by other systems.
Thus, those people who are interested in a system such as the one I described, have to ask themselves if they want to develop a system that can integrate to their main system or if they want to add a new system to the existing one. The response will depend on the main maintenance system they have, because they will have to evaluate its use and the degree of complexity of its interfaces, since this translates into time and money.
Developing a maintenance personnel management module for the main maintenance system can represent high costs; however, it would provide the advantage of sharing information in a single platform. Currently, the trend seems to be evaluating add-on systems, but is it possible that a company will develop this module at a low cost? That might be the case in the future, when these modules are included in a suite or an integrated solution.
Are there any systems such as the one described?
Unfortunately, the answer is not a clear "yes" or "no". There are some options that should be considered. We must not forget that we do not want a typical human resources management system (HRMS) that will provide us information about payroll, hiring, skills, etc., or a system that will allow users to know who was hired, or a person's functions in a project. The goal is to find a solution that provides timely and dynamic help to a maintenance job that is continuously being developed and that is regulated by the authorities.
Previously, I mentioned Groundstar as an alternative (see part one). Although this company needs to develop their solution t operate in maintenance areas, they have experience in airport operations, which can be similar to the situations we face in line maintenance.
Staffsmart is another solution that could be considered, and not only by airlines. However, this company must also develop part of the requirements I described in this article.
Due to the complexity of aircraft line maintenance, there is a need for a technical personnel management system that has specific features and that is different from what is already in the market.
This system should have an open architecture that allows it to communicate with other systems or create interfaces that do not represent an issue for platforms and programming; it must be able to identify technicians through their shift record; and group them according to expertise, experience, and priority assigned by the supervisors before the technicians are assigned. These parameters will allow the system to suggest team works that can be seen on screen or on hard copy, so that the supervisor can approve or modify them. Also, users have to be able to update the system at any time to provide a snapshot of the status of the maintenance staff in real time, . With this information, users need to generate solutions in a timely and reliable way, that can be modified in a short time frame. To accomplish all this, the system has to be user-friendly and easy to use in daily operations; it also has to be able to generate historical information that can be used in short-term scenarios and different planning horizons, allowing to schedule staff and create budgets.
If the system works correctly, it will be reliable and the supervisor will use it to make queries of what might happen during a future shift, day, or week, and can reinforc preventive and not reactive behavior. However, to have such a situation there must be a shift in culture, encouraged by the good results that such a system is able to produce.
The use of wireless networks and PDAs can help expand the systems possibilities, allowing users to view manuals, analyze simple diagrams, verify the beginning or the end of a job, request assistance from a supervisor, or geographically locate technical staff.
We can summarize benefits in an automatic allocation of jobs and technical staff and a more agile generation of scenarios and solutions in every day decision-making, based on accurate information, as well as short- and long-term technical resource planning.
Although there are no solutions in the market that fulfill all the requirements I discussed in this article, it is necessary to evaluate existing systems that comply partially with those requirements, in order to decide if acquiring an add-on system will be more convenient than hiring local developers or well-established companies to develop it.
The idea is that such a system will help perform line maintenance operations, not only for airlines, but also industries that execute dynamic maintenance. This way, the use of this system will expand and be incorporated as a module into existing maintenance systems. Although it does not represent cost savings, it will help airlines respect flight schedules and production without any inconveniences and solve issues that have not arisen yet. In other words, it will help avoid economic losses and contribute to optimize processes through technical staff management.
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