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Digital processes, e-signatures and ETL/ELB promise better ways of doing business in the post-Covid world
Author: Kirk Strutt, Senior Product Manager, IFS and Dan Dutton, VP, R&D, IFSSubscribe
Kirk Strutt – Senior Product Manager and Dan Dutton, VP, R&D, both responsible for Aerospace & Defense at IFS, explain how ETL/ELB, e-Signatures and digital processes will help lead us to a more efficient post-Covid world
There is no question that, emerging from the current Covid-19 pandemic, airlines and MROs will face not only the usual challenges inherent in the relentless drive for efficiency but also the additional imperative to be able to meet the quality standards of aviation, the most demanding economic activity, far into the future. In this article, we’ll discuss two technology enablers, electronic technical logbooks and e-signatures, that will support efforts to meet the above challenges but will also facilitate a leap forward in process efficiency and effectiveness to place the sector on a stronger footing for when the global economy recovers, as it will. Commercial aviation has felt the full force of the coronavirus pandemic, with airlines dramatically reducing their operations and some even stopping flying completely. In the immediate term, carriers, OEMs and MROs alike must adapt to meet social distancing measures as they try to continue business operations. Looking ahead, a combination of the trend to paperless and mobile working, increased remote working, social distancing and regulatory measures could improve the appreciation of electronic technical logs and kick-start the use of e-signatures in maintenance operations. We’ll consider some of the history of both technologies, what they offer the sector and how they will contribute to a stronger, more efficient future.
THE ELECTRONIC TECHNICAL LOGBOOK
The aircraft technical logbook plays a key role in aircraft turnarounds. It is the primary communication tool between pilots and a maintenance organization. Pilots can see the maintenance status of the aircraft and then report any faults back and forth with the maintenance team—but efforts to digitize this process have so far been ineffective. However, the next generation of electronic technical logbooks can strike a balance between pilot engagement, maintenance readiness and aircraft safety. More importantly it is driving a new connected workforce, essential to integrate mission-critical personnel on the day of operations, spanning the maintenance control center, mechanics, supervisors, engineers and pilots.
The Principal Director in the Accenture aerospace and defense practice, Craig Gottlieb, recently went on record to say latest research shows A&D companies are scaling more than 55% of their digital proofs-of-concept to production. However, fewer than 20% of them do so successfully to create lasting benefit to their business. Electronic aircraft technical logbooks would seem to be one such development.
The over-arching benefit of a digitized electronic technical logbook (ETL) is to minimize silos of information between the day of operations workforce – enabling all stakeholders to work in unison to make the aircraft serviceable and ready to depart on time with passengers. ETLs can also reduce the needs for physical contact throughout the process between a fault occurring and the issue being resolved.
This incredibly paper-heavy process of aircraft technical logbooks seems the obvious target to digitize yet attempts to do so have fallen far short of the mark, mostly due to problems with complexity of the solutions which have been brought forward. The result is an extremely low adoption rate of true electronic technical logbooks among commercial airlines. Why has this been the case?
Electronic technical logbooks historically provide complexity, not clarity, for airlines
The issue with a paper-based aircraft technical logbook is that all the information it houses essentially sits as a silo outside the core maintenance system an airline may be using – regardless of the software provider an airline uses. These core maintenance systems are incredibly granular and complex, for good reason as they provide a view of all aircraft maintenance activity, right down to every nut and bolt.
But the logbook itself exists as a simple way of interacting between maintenance organization and pilot to minimize turnaround times. It essentially acts as a micro maintenance system – with the ability to sign-off work, track deferred items and look at the history of what has recently been resolved and fixed on the aircraft. As such it is essential to improving and optimizing aircraft turnaround times.
In a paper-based scenario, the pilot has to wait until they are at the aircraft before seeing what deferrals are associated with a flight. The pilot may have been handed a flight dispatch in a pre-flight briefing, but this may not reflect the current status of an aircraft, often meaning they wouldn’t contain an up-to-date view of anything last minute which took place on the inbound journey.
Tablets solve one problem
Initial attempts to digitize this process saw electronic technical logbooks integrated into the aircraft itself, which proved a complicated and costly disaster as it required introducing flight proven hardware and software systems, not a viable solution.
Following that, things moved forward with the advent of iPads and other tablets being introduced to the flight deck, which brought the possibility to house maintenance data on a portable mobile device. The main stumbling block here was that these ‘paperless systems’ actually mirrored the paper-based systems they were trying to replace. Simply logging tasks manually into an iPad rather than pen to paper does not make electronic technical logbooks a fully integrated system.
…but a new digitized approach is required
From a cost-saving perspective every airline has now provided a pilot with an iPad or tablet, to remove as much paper as possible from the flight deck. Delivering the logbook over a tablet transcends the paper-based platform and gives a pilot access to aircraft status anywhere anytime. But by just electronically mimicking paper-systems, airlines have to effectively integrate two separate maintenance systems together, making for a complex and complicated muddle.
In order for an electronic technical logbook to function effectively it has to be an extension of the core maintenance system that an airline already has in place. But even this is not the silver bullet to logbook success—there are some core elements which should be contained within a truly electronic technical logbook which will provide airlines with a solution to enable easy collaboration and further shrink turnaround times.
The paperless experience starts way before boarding – forewarned is forearmed
The advantage of having data available at the fingertips of pilots as they travel to the airport means they can see anything which was raised during the inbound flight, even if it hasn’t necessarily been dispositioned yet. They can start thinking about how a certain type of fault might impact the flight they have, for example the aircraft may require extra fuel because of a performance penalty.
A pilot arriving at the aircraft no longer needs to physically walk onto the flight deck to sign-off the logbook. They can be down on the ground, outside the aircraft, signing-off tasks by sending a push notification through their tablet to the airline maintenance department, indicating whether they are happy to begin the flight.
Faults logged in real-time means maintenance on arrival
Once the pilot is flying the aircraft, if they encounter any problems, they should be able to log the fault in the app, which should be able to push updates to the maintenance department, either in real-time or when the aircraft touches the ground. On aircraft with in-flight internet connectivity the maintenance organization will immediately receive a push notification outlining the fault and start preparing work orders and parts, so they are ready to address it the moment the aircraft lands.
Pilot UX becomes crucial
Another area where previous electronic technical logbooks have often failed is overloading the pilot with information in a format they are not used to dealing with. It makes no sense to simply expose the complete core maintenance system to a pilot. They require a slim and tailored interface which provides quick and easy access to the information they need, without the need to go digging around.
This new approach to a true electronic technical logbook, extended from a core maintenance system, relies on a simple and elegant user interface for the pilot and maintenance technicians. No complex integration to aircraft systems or other separate maintenance systems; just the right core information delivered between pilot and maintenance organization, at the right time.
A pilot-driven user experience means the electronic technical logbook developer must build into the UX (user experience) an understanding of the flight deck environment where pilots are operating. Many pilots are already using in-flight apps, so an electronic technical logbook should look and feel like an extension of those. This includes built-in dark modes for operating in night-time environments for example, and other unique requirements which come from working on an aircraft flight deck: seemingly obvious but not often done.
Benefits beyond the flight deck – the connected workforce…
The widespread benefit of next generation electronic technical logbooks is an increasingly but digitally connected workforce. Airlines are striving towards connectivity across their operations, from check-in, in-flight connectivity right down to a connected and fleet-wide maintenance system.
This is the goal, and an effective electronic technical logbook allows pilots to communicate clearly and quickly with the whole team involved in flying an aircraft on the day of operations – spanning mechanics, maintenance control centers, engineers and more.
…and improved safety and real-time compliance
There are also benefits which extend into aircraft safety. When dealing with a paper logbook, mechanics have to wait for an aircraft to land, taxi and have passengers disembark before even accessing the paper log. The mechanic records the faults then manually inputs them into the core maintenance system. Core systems then run a complex compliance analysis and validation, which flags any faults – sometimes delaying the turnaround time or, even worse, flagging after an aircraft has left for its next destination.
With an electronic logbook inputting data into the core system in real-time, compliance discrepancies can be caught immediately, preventing the release of an aircraft in a non-compliant state.
Maintenance digitization directly impacts profit
According to Frost & Sullivan, Tier I airlines in particular, take a holistic view of digital transformation, viewing it as an umbrella term that embraces changes to culture, business models, people and products, as well as advanced technologies. The adoption of electronic technical logbooks should be considered a key part of the digitization of airline processes, because maintenance should be a focus point for them. By arming the pilot with logbook information well in advance, and connecting the entire operations workforce, airlines can significantly minimize the last-minute surprises which contribute to longer aircraft on ground (AOG) scenarios – keeping planes in the air, passengers happy and looking after that bottom line.
The desire for remote technology to play a greater role in aviation maintenance is something inspectors have supported for several years. So the news was well received when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced policy at the end of March which will allow video links and other remote technology to help conduct inspections and validate regulatory compliance moving forward. The policy is in addition to an increasing set of procedural changes that have been implemented to accommodate social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, but the aviation industry will be thinking longer term, hoping that this change of direction is a sign of things to come.
With digital and mobile maintenance very much top of mind for the FAA, inspectors and airlines, the use of the already existing technology of e-signatures is perhaps something that has gone under the radar in recent times. A number of IFS customers have indeed been using the technology in their maintenance operations, but we foresee e-signatures now hold more value than ever given the current circumstances we find ourselves in. Here is why the industry should take full advantage of e-signature capability both during and after the coronavirus pandemic.
A logical step on the journey to paperless operations
The core purpose of e-signature technology is to ultimately eliminate the amount of paper in the maintenance process and help streamline critical processes inside maintenance operations. Organizations can enhance their overall efficiency when paper is removed from the equation and work is managed electronically. Typical uses for electronic documents in maintenance include airworthiness releases, maintenance releases and documents that support getting aircraft ready for release, such as job cards and technical logbooks. Here e-signature capability takes away the time-consuming activities associated with paper in terms of data entry, the re-keying of inaccurate information into the Management Information System (MIS), and inefficient search and retrieval.
Paper-free maintenance planning, labor, parts and tool scheduling, and work assignment mean that if changes occur, there is nothing to print, shuffle or distribute. All stakeholders can immediately see their new assignments as planners push electronic job cards out to a mechanic’s device. It is this level of functionality that is helping organizations make great strides to achieving paperless maintenance operations in the future—while limiting the social interaction between workers in the short term.
Shed paper documents and reap financial benefits of an ecosystem
Paper in any process is a bottle neck—it is a ‘single user’ medium. Take an aircraft release for instance. The cash and goodwill cost incurred when a plane full of passengers is waiting to leave while a mechanic fills out a paper form, walks it to the cockpit for a captain’s signature and then returns it to maintenance operations can be significant. Now consider an electronic technical logbook as an example of how airlines can minimize aircraft turnaround times by reducing reliance on paper. Pilot to maintenance interaction could be digital, faster and safer—given the current need to adhere to social distancing measures.
An app-based, next-generation logbook approach is how IFS is helping airlines address aircraft turnaround times while reducing paper-based processes. When accessible on a mobile device, this technology eliminates the need for pilots to physically sign-off logbooks and the enhanced data available from this capability means faults raised during an inbound flight can be seen in real-time. A pilot can then consider how a fault might impact flights ahead of time, preventing issues being unaddressed after an aircraft has left for its next destination.
There are similar benefits in terms of shift handover. A standard work order for some operators could be up to 200 pages long. The mechanic must then to go through every page to identify the open tasks and build a separate list for the next shift—this manual process takes time and it is easy to miss key details. Now let’s add e-signatures. This provides a real opportunity to help operators refine their shift turnover activities, they can save potentially double-digit hours per day and hundreds of thousands of dollars from a labor standpoint.
All singing from the same digital hymn sheet
An aviation maintenance management software system should have integrated functionality that ties materials, technical records, engineering and maintenance execution together. With e-signatures and the support of an effective aviation maintenance management software system, maintenance tasks can be carried out in one system and designated as requiring digital sign-off. Software ideally will provide alerts to any errors or conflicts in real-time, ensuring all relevant information is available to the signatory before a record is signed.
When a document is electronically signed by a technician, inspector, supervisor or other maintenance personnel, it becomes an electronic record, encrypted and permanently stored in the aviation maintenance management database. These records can then be viewed and verified at any time but cannot be altered. Audit trails become much more efficient and the ability to instantly search for and retrieve a specific set of records to perhaps respond to a regulator’s request is hugely beneficial, potentially saving thousands of hours a year.
Non-repudiation on a document and a digital trace means someone cannot deny that they have signed something, while quick searches, reports by date and the level of auditing provided by system automation enables technicians to focus on their core job of maintaining aircraft.
DIGITAL SOLUTIONS TO HELP TODAY AND IN THE FUTURE
Neither electronic technical logbooks nor e-signature technology are new in commercial aviation, but regulation has been significantly lagging behind the pace of technology change. It would be foolish for regulators, airlines and MROs alike to ignore these capabilities in the current climate where even the smallest of advantages can make a huge difference to help from a business standpoint, and safeguard the welfare of the workforce and customers during undoubtedly testing times at present and into the future.
Kirk has spent the last 20 years working on aviation maintenance management software solutions. He is currently senior product manager within the IFS aerospace and defence portfolio, working to understand how IFS software solutions can deliver long term value. Prior to that, he has held a variety of professional services, sales and product development roles at Mxi Technologies, a leading provider of aviation maintenance management software that was acquired by IFS in January 2017.
As Vice President, R&D – Aerospace & Defense, Dan is responsible for overseeing all facets of the IFS Aerospace & Defense product go-to-market strategy and roadmap. He leads a team of product experts charged with understanding business issues and how IFS software solutions can best deliver long-term value. Prior to IFS, Dan held a variety of senior marketing and services leadership roles at Mxi Technologies, a provider of aviation maintenance management software, acquired by IFS in 2017.
With over 400 Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) or Maintenance Repair & Overhaul (MRO) companies using IFS solutions today, IFS delivers flexible, modular business solutions that manage the entire commercial aviation lifecycle of contracts, projects, MRO, assets and services. IFS offers functionality for contract and project management, risk management, budgeting and forecasting, engineering, material management, sub-contracting, document management, fabrication, service and maintenance management, as well as financials and human resources