Knowing the maintenance process
The secret for the successful implementation of a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) or a maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) system lies in the level of knowledge users have about the maintenance process. Every airline has its own maintenance programs and manuals, and different types of aircraft. Maintenance can be very different for a turbo propeller airplane, a jet engine airplane, or a helicopter, although their core maintenance activities are similar.
Since geography, environment, work environment, etc. combine these differences, airlines must have qualified staff that know the maintenance process, especially because they will do more than just technical, monitoring, and engineering tasks and their related paperwork.
One of the key ways in which a CMMS or MRO system can be helpful is by correctly defining inputs and outputs in the process's information stream. Yet, the most important thing is clearly identifying where we need help from such a system. As I mentioned before, some systems can be partially implemented, that is, users can implement only those modules that will help carry out the process and they become responsible for benefiting from such applications and the information they process. If the system is only used to create graphs or to issue reports and documents, it's very likely that it's the system's potential is being wasted. Moreover, users have to pay high license or software rental fees for functionality they are not using, which ultimately affects an airline's operating costs.
On the other hand, when users have deep knowledge of the maintenance process—from its basic activities to the high-level information that will be processed and analyzed—a significant percentage of success is guaranteed, even if no system has been implemented. We could analyze and discuss the key factors and process indicators that serve the decision-making process, but that's a subject for another article. What is important is to keep in mind that knowledge of these factors and process indicators will make it easier to select a system from those currently available in the market.
To illustrate the importance of in-house expertise of processes, I recently had a conversation with an aerospatial engineer who used to work for British Airways. He told me that for British Airways to become as successful as it is, the company had to go through a ten-year process that involved analyzing their processes, systems, and culture. In other words, the company had to understand its own processes.
He continued to explain that these factors and acquired experience, when combined in an appropriate and balanced way, will lead to a CMMS or MRO system that benefits its users. A system or set of modules that focuses on basic maintenance and service forecast activities can be efficient for a specific area. However, the situation becomes more complex as users need to automate or systematize more components of the maintenance process; thus this is where the importance of knowledge comes in.
Mobile computing: an option for a CMMS or MRO system in the aviation industry
Currently, systems focus more on how mobile computing can benefit an airline. For example, when I was working with the team responsible for the implementation of an automatic data collection system for the hangar, we considered making the system available for the technicians so they would have the information they needed close to the airplane they were working on. This focus brought important benefits, such as having maintenance data the same day it was generated. Of course, this process involved research on the best available equipment, such as access points, types of antennae, cabinets, computers, etc. that would allow us to install a wireless network inside the hangar and place computers around the airplane. We were able to generate arrays and services from the airplane, avoiding traveling and double data capture, while the supervisor took notes and then captured the information in his PC, which was connected to the system. Then we were able to use a laptop and a personalized digital assistant (PDA) to prove that our plan was feasible and didn't compromise the server's or system's operation.
As a result of this implementation which leveraged the knowledge of in-house processes, we obtained viable solutions, such as material and component query and request through the system, generation of documents for non-routine jobs, staff registry, etc., while technicians and supervisors could stay close to the aircraft. Technicians could continue working while the correct personnel sent them the material or documents. This was another benefit of registering the work cards that were being issued, and it proved to be very useful for the maintenance staff working on-line. The next step was expanding the benefits of mobile computing to the aircraft platforms and the positions fixed by the airports, which is only possible in some airports.
This implementation was the result of the fact that CMMS or MRO systems for the aviation industry should have or should develop the flexibility to accommodate mobile computing. In general, these solutions are very affordable and can be implemented in small or large airlines or in independent repair shops, because their costs are lower than CMMS itself. This allows the expansion of the system's scope so it can operate both inside and outside the airline.
However, to install a wireless network and radio frequency antennae, the safety and integrity of the data must be ensured—this subject will become more important as the use of wireless networks spreads worldwide. There are several mobile computing providers in the market as well as large, diverse, powerful, and affordable equipment, that allow the design of a solution to adapt to each airline or repair shop, thus adding flexibility to the CMMS or MRO system in place.
Which is the best system?
There are many CMMS and MRO systems in the market, each one with specific features that can bring benefits to airlines or repair shops. Moreover, since each airline must consider the solution that best matches its needs, it is hard to make a general statement. Some systems address maintenance jobs, and their control and forecasting directly. They have turned out to be very effective and contribute to the success and productivity of some airlines. On the other hand, some systems have been developed in such a way that they can represent a very robust and complete solution. However, the best system is the one that truly satisfies an airline's needs.
SAP has a very popular system that has been implemented in several airlines, either as a standalone solution or with other systems that address maintenance-related processes. Certainly, this system has some pros, and perhaps the two most important benefits it brings are organizing and controlling defined processes; and providing visibility to what happens to management positions. However, it lacks some crucial features that are specific to airline maintenance processes. Even though this absence has led to the development of interfaces, they are costly and have to be justified by the benefits that the system will bring to the airline.
Thus, selecting the best software starts by defining the airline's problems or areas that need to be improved. It is followed by analyzing the solutions that best fit the airline's situation and the goals it wants to achieve over time. Given all of these factors, the selection process depends on the experience and knowledge of the maintenance processes that are essential to the airline.
Adjusting the process to the system or the system to the process
This question might start a debate and produce different reactions among the persons responsible for defining or improving a CMMS system. Certainly, implementing a system can clarify some of the steps of a process, but typically systems are created based on a "general" philosophy to try to cover most of the situations that could arise in the industry. It is possible to design "One size fits all" systems, but they normally—although not always—represent high costs that can delay the return on investment (ROI).
An airline's needs must be defined through its processes, and these needs should help establish an objective that will develop a better solution and ultimately lead to the selection of the best system. The selection process incorporates issues including the operating platform, general advantages and processes, users, and airlines to the system's ease of use, size, and cost. As a systems manager once said, it is not a matter of adapting the process to the system, since this approach might cause problems and create a resistance to change among users.
Selecting a CMMS or MRO system for maintenance has to be made by the employee or employees who are most familiar with the maintenance process, because they will have to do a detailed evaluation of the system's features. A complete solution—a single system—is beneficial for an airline and the system's users; however, this doesn't mean that having multiple systems or software modules that are added around the main system is a bad solution.
Whatever solution is chosen, CMMS or MRO systems developers for the aviation industry have to face the challenge of integrating parts around aircraft maintenance. Whether the solution comes in the form of modules or is based on functionality, it should allow users to control maintenance jobs, generate forecasts, and provide managers with useful information that is easy to read and interpret, and is oriented to performance indicators.
The main benefits that a CMMS system should bring to an airline include standardizing process time and handling information that is common to every module in the system. It should also save costs, as well as optimize man-hours, maintenance job management, and space in the maintenance base.
Before analyzing, selecting, and using the best system, it is crucial to know the real maintenance process or processes, including new work alternatives, such as mobile computing, to expand the scope of the system.
There are several CMMS systems for the aviation industry in the market, and the tendency is to create an integrated solution by adding ERP features to provide useful information in different levels and intuitive and user-friendly environments. Furthermore, such systems have an open architecture, which makes them more flexible and allows them to share information with other systems and operate in the most common environments in the industry. However, the best system will always be the one that satisfies the needs related to the maintenance process and brings benefits to the airline.
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