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Air Works Case Study: Thinking about MRO IT
Author: Ravinder Pal Singh, Global Chief Information And Technology Officer, Air WorksSubscribe
Thinking about MRO IT
Ravinder Pal Singh and Air Works have transformed their IT outlook and processes: here’s how!
Ravinder Pal Singh (Ravi), Global Chief Information and Technology Officer, Air Works India has first-hand experience of how an MRO provider can meet technology challenges and take control of its own IT destiny. He well knows, as he puts it, “the yin and yang of a CIO’s life,” having spent time early in his career advising C-level executives worldwide, “on using technology to help their businesses.”
Building on that hands-on experience, Ravi turned his thoughts and energy to better understanding and applying the rapid changes happening in technology today and how they could be harnessed to ensure that an MRO business can always be at the leading edge of MRO IT application.
Today Ravi, as Global CIO for Air Works Engineering, puts the management and entrepreneurial lessons he learned and taught into practice for MRO IT. In the past, he explains, “India has struggled when it comes to aviation and especially aviation engineering.” Even Air Works, the company that Ravi joined and now leads from a technology perspective, was struggling not so long ago to imbibe technology and use information for its success. As Ravi’s article in the last issue of Aircraft IT showed, that has now changed to the extent that Air Works are now making their own weather in the field of MRO IT and so we asked him to share with readers a few of the philosophies and thoughts that have guided and driven his work and how he has applied them in practice.
Over many years working in IT, I have come across a variety of tools to help get things done but there is one that I value above all. It is the checklist; a simple tool that the aviation domain has given to all other domains and still one of the most successful tools for execution success. It might be simple but it’s very effective. The checklist was first introduced decades ago by the U.S. Air Force, since when checklists have enabled pilots to fly aircraft of mindboggling sophistication. I have aligned this simple technique to my domain of computational science and its promise to my organization Air Works.
The practical clarity and commitment represented by a checklist crystallizes thoughts into doable actions which can motivate us because they set specific objectives while providing a clear path to the Vision. Looked at as a template for transformation, it has worked in delivering the change through technology that we wanted to achieve in Air Works. From a selfish enterprise IT perspective it has not only generated returns for the technology and engineering community within Air Works but has also been appreciated by the global technology community. Some measure of that appreciation can be seen in awards like the CIO 100 and, as late as March 2015, the NetApp Innovation Awards’ ‘Best Innovation in Cloud Computing’.
Unlocking the power of IT; our standards to use right now
If the checklist has been an idea that aviation has given the world, an area with which we have sometimes struggled in aviation is IT, in the aviation domain overall and more so in India. It is surprising but true. Surprising because it’s a relatively young sector which uses complex engineering inside aircraft or in its mechanical and civil ecosystem yet is still way behind in adopting information technology or computational science to enhance productivity, overall operational efficiency and create a healthy ecosystem of co-creation. Things are changing but relatively slowly due to the gap between technology innovation and its adoption within existing aviation standards and regulations.
A few simple examples will illustrate the point.
Aviation probably has some of the best defined standards but translating those standards using secure commodity technology has not happened, despite all the debates on IP, conflict of business interest, competitive edge and so on. And yet, the value of applying standards has been proven in industries with much less technology sophistication than aviation. In-spite of huge brand rivalries, where there is general agreement on and practice of standards, those agreed standards have operated to the benefit of all. It’s quite the reverse in aviation. Right from the top of the value chain, different OEMs have different standards and different translations which in turn create unique ecosystems extended right down to the lowest level in the engineering value chain, MROs. This variance in standards applied to the products of different OEMs adds to inefficiency, increases operating cost and compares poorly to domains such financial services, retail or others.
Consider the IT solution providers in aviation engineering; whether for ERP, Content Management, Point-solution providers or others. None stands out in terms of innovation, cost of solution or fit to the needs of most industry users. For instance, it’s strange that a legacy technology like RFID is still talked about as a new initiative in the aviation industry. Hence, there is huge gap in the quality of aircraft or hangar engineering as opposed to IT adoption. Notwithstanding that, at Air Works we decided a couple of years ago to use IT as the key strategic enabler in achieving our program for non-linear growth. It would have been impossible if we had taken a classical and expensive legacy approach, and quite frankly we did not have that kind of cash available. So we used the commodity technology that other domains were already using effectively.
We solved the standards problem for ourselves by creating an Air Works ‘fabric’ which has its own service bus, translator, convertor and adapter for all the types of aircraft with which we deal. This technology and its architecture have driven business change by changing the whole structure of the business and its value chain. Now the CAMO (continuous airworthiness management organization) truly behaves as it should, leads the value-chain and initiates the processes, and thus the activities in our hangar.
As a simple quantitative illustration; a typical track and trace activity which in the past could sometimes take 5-6 months in CAMO, Planning, Engineering and Supply-chain, today takes about 350 milliseconds, my performance KPI for any system in Air Works. Imagine the cycle-time improvement and reduction in conflicts that this improvement has brought about. Also, by directly connecting customers through Air Works app-mart on Cloud, we have removed any opaqueness thus increasing customer satisfaction and timely dispute management.
Doing it for ourselves
This all came about because when, a couple of years back, Air Works ventured into the solution providers market to find a way to simplify this (above) complexity via digitization, no one came forward with a solution or even to co-create a solution with us. Hence we created our technology, our own Intellectual Property. Now given this visible successful transformation via digitization, we are looking to create a software platform and services as a business capability to sell and increase our profitability.
In short, it’s high time that more people in this industry who are passionate about aviation stopped worrying who will make the first move (or hiding behind the excuse of the regulatory framework) and took concrete initiatives… carved new paths. It’s time to match the quality of engineering inside the aircraft with its external ecosystem of hangars and line-stations: to make the business of aviation engineering profitable using simple, cheap and readily available technology. As like-minded technologists in aviation, we need to take a leap of faith.
Execution: the key to achievement… and in 90 days
In this highly results-driven culture, execution is the key to agile and visible transformation. I like projects to be results-driven by nature with every project producing a result in 90 days. If there’s no result in 90 days, then I’ll scrap that project, whatever the rationale behind it. The philosophy within Air Works IT is that you have to produce results in 90 days. You don’t get a second chance and there is no excuse accepted since it has to be results driven. This also helps in true realizable innovation and differentiates ‘talkers’ from ‘doers’.
Getting the business connected
A balanced scorecard should always include elements of thought processes and decision making. What then have our quantitative results been? Air Works in 2012 was a zero IT company. In fact, I would say, a negative IT company; by which I mean it had hangars, line stations and offices which were not connected with each other. That means supposedly simple things essential for any IT organization were not really available. Things, like basic firewall, basic switches, and decent stable bandwidth. It was not a connected organization. The second element contributing to negative IT was that, before 2012, Air Works had bought an expensive portfolio of products including a costly collaboration suite of software, ERP, BI products etc.: however, none was being used properly with most not even deployed.
So the first challenge was to build an organization and connect it. We connected over 45 hangars in five countries and increased bandwidth by not two or three digits, but by approximately four-digit numbers. We also implemented an ERP solution which had become legacy since it had been bought several years earlier. Everybody told us that it takes years to implement ERP, especially the kind of ERP that we needed. But we implemented our own version of an improved ERP in three quarters with over 55 different aircraft types configured – a normal large airline has a maximum of five or six different types. Today our operations run on a digital enterprise backbone mostly on elastic cloud.
Since our ERP was legacy and the ERP vendor was not agile enough to partner us in the project, we created our own modern digital mobile fabric on the cloud to connect our customers. We wanted to introduce transparency for customer to get visibility for their investments or portfolio, i.e. a consumption report? Customers should also know how to get their aircraft utilization report, to see what we are doing on their aircraft and what activity is underway, etc. We have many similar examples and case studies ranging from achieving cloud based collaboration in 90 days to app-market foundation.
Better working together
Projects in Air Works are not done by IT only. People who work at hangars and line stations whether it’s an AME (aircraft maintenance engineer), planner, CAMO expert, quality, store inspector, technician, admin manager, HR, compliance auditor… the list goes on, are integral to the technology strategy and its execution. In addition we have developers, network experts, etc., all working in the business. Within 90 days, we assemble the people who will be running the project, write a proposal, accept the proposal, build the architecture, and push it to production. I use a modification of several methodologies – the closest being Agile or maybe a unified Agile approach. But, everything is aligned to core business result, its value to non-linear growth.
The trick is to quickly identify and create what I call a system of records (this might be the exact opposite of the legacy and classical approach to software implementation) mapping the organization structure and its bare minimum transaction and compliance needs. In this case it was both easy and difficult, as when I arrived in Air Works, there had already been a sizeable investment in IT; but most of the portfolio was either unused or both the IT and user community were exasperated by its poor execution and lack of usability. Also, I was new to aviation, hence needed to understand its culture and complexity. So IT strategy was a simple matter; first, maximize utilization of the legacy investment and align it to immediate needs then second, simultaneously build a platform for the future, aligned with non-linear growth ambitions.
As I’ve already said above, execution was the key to success for the strategy. We had to consider how to make the realization of our strategic objectives possible (let alone successful) within the constraints of cash and culture. There was no alternative but to create a culture of the community as a core execution principle. Thus social and cloud developed organically as key pillars of Air Works IT modernization, not because I wanted it or the whole world was talking about it. Our vision was simple: to create a unique social fabric which aligns with this sense of community and focuses on who the ‘real’ people are, what they do, and what ideas they are exchanging; then extending that to their conversations with customers until it becomes almost a troubleshooting and information provisioning digital platform with the customer at the core. We knew that if we could create this, based on easily and economically available commodity technology and wrap it over the legacy portfolio system and its records, we could achieve both goals of the strategy.
Five steps to IT achievement
In all of this, we evolved five elements of social fabric architecture, which are:
- Map and identity; i.e. where you are, which aircraft you are working on, its location, which office you belong to, and what are your coordinates etc.;
- Industrial network, sometimes called the IoT (Internet of things) of RFID, M2M, WSN and little bit of SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition): what is your capability, what tools you are working with, and the proximity of those tools to that particular problem inside aircraft etc.;
- HR-profiling, how you are recognized in terms of your capabilities, certification, caliber, and so on;
- Content and searching for it – manuals, designs, transcoding, digital asset management etc.;
- Democratic app-market; i.e. the ability to create your own app to solve and share. Of course, we have applied certain principles, disciplined guidelines and very strict technology performance specifications, similar to the marketplace or app markets of Apple or Microsoft or Android, to balance freedom versus governance.
A look into the future
Hence there is another space emerging in Air Works via this social convergence and its digitization which I call ‘Digital Innovation Space’. My prediction and bet is that very soon this may become one of the main business lines of Air Works and in years to come may very well be its largest business footprint.
“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction” – Pablo Picasso
Ravinder Pal Singh
Global Chief Information And Technology Officer At Air Works
Ravi is transforming current IT and creating its future avatar which is aligned to Air Work’s vision and its various business goals. He has lived and worked on three continents and his global experience covers broad disciplines ranging from strategy to execution. In the recent past he has been associated with a leader in technology and a ‘big 4’ management consulting firm to help their Fortune 100 customers and government institutions in IT transformation. He
is a child rights activist, practices yoga, runs marathons and does mountaineering. Ravi is also a holder, in his personal capacity, of several technology patents.
Air Works is India’s largest independent aviation MRO and India’s first EASA certified MRO. The company is certified to maintain 96 different types of aircraft – ranging from small, single engine machines to turboprops plus B737s and A320s. Air Works includes Air Livery, UK which is Europe’s leading independent aircraft painting and re-finishing company and Empire Aviation Group, Dubai which is the Middle East’s largest aircraft management services company.