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Managing digital assets with digital systems
Author: Allan Bachan, VP, Managing Director, MRO Operations, ICFSubscribe
Allan Bachan, VP, Managing Director, MRO Operations, ICF shares thoughts on the optimal usage of MRO IT Systems and asks, ‘how do we get there?’
In this article, I want to focus on IT systems and the way that they have been implemented over the last ten years or so before focusing on where we intend and expect to be ten years from now. Just to tell you a little bit about ICF: we’ve been in the industry since 1963 and we have a relationship with Aircraft Commerce, Aircraft Analytics and Aircraft IT. ICF includes four practices: Airline Advisory, Airports, Aircraft, and Aerospace & MRO. This article will fit into that Aerospace & MRO category. Also, ICF is widely spread around the world (figure 1) in terms of businesses, projects and who we do business with.
The first topic that we’re going to cover in the article will be systems (where we are from an MRO IT systems standpoint globally); we’ll then look at some considerations for where we are headed and how do we capitalize on what exactly is MRO IT; given those considerations, we’ll focus a little more on potential solutions; and enablers that will make those solutions become reality, before we conclude.
If we look back over the last ten years, our research, covering about 850 airlines, has shown the spread of MRO IT systems in use today (figure 2) from an AOC (Air Operating Certificate) perspective. It might look a bit different from a fleet perspective, especially in the Legacy band where a lot of legacy systems are still being used, including by some larger carriers. But the current systems shown in the figure have had at least one system release over the last three years, which means that all of the systems referred to are still being supported. They’re modern platforms and most readers will be familiar with them.
The digital thread is elusive
However, based on a survey that was conducted last year by Cap Gemini, 87.4 percent of people who responded, from the same population, said that their current solutions are average or below average, which means that the system is not fulfilling all their needs (figure 3).
People have certainly invested in IT systems over the past ten years but why are they not satisfied? Also, 17.4 percent said that their current system doesn’t even meet their basic needs but 64.1 percent expect to have gone paperless by 2022. On the right side of the figure, we can see that a majority (78.1 percent) considered there would be value from gaps in the digital thread being closed, i.e. if they could be seamlessly and purely digital in managing their aviation assets, and 76.9 percent say that the OEMs should be active in that transformation to digital processes. So, solutions are not doing quite what we want them to do and are not where we need them to be: but, of course, we see that the complete digital trail has been a key need for which we still fall short.
So, why is there this disconnect? Let’s look at some of the considerations including, again, how do we optimize these systems moving forward especially bearing in mind where we are today, of course, and where we’re headed as far as the current fleet is concerned?
During the next decade (figure 4), there will be 10,700 aircraft retirements but with 23,300 new aircraft added to the fleet (pre COVID-19 estimates) and they will all be data enhanced types and variants and connected aircraft.
Today, readers will be aware that everybody complains about aircraft producing so much data and us not knowing what to do with it. Predictive Analytics is one of the buzz-words for how we might address and utilize the volumes of data that will be coming off these aircraft. What this means though is that, notwithstanding the impact of Coronavirus, because these figures were compiled before Coronavirus, the order books for Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are full for the next five to eight years at current production rates.
However, taking a reference from the US Air Force, the acquisition cost of an asset is only 20-30 percent the cost of the total life-cycle cost for that asset, including maintenance; so, when buying an aircraft, you’ll initially be paying 30 percent of what the whole thing is worth; throughout its life cycle, you’re going to spend three or four times that in maintenance. That’s why OEMs are very motivated to be a part of the aftermarket. And remember (see above) people in the survey were saying that OEMs need to be more part of the solution here.
The other thing here is that, not only are these airplanes already more sophisticated than legacy types but they’re going to get even more sophisticated. So, how are we going to manage these increasingly complex assets?
The first consideration: inducting a new aircraft into the fleet
What happens today, when we induct one of these data enhanced aircraft into an airline, is that we take a digitalized asset and force it through our traditional transactional systems (figure 5).
The objectives are configuration control, maintenance programs and reliability management; that’s the key. To make that more real for the people who are doing these tasks, they take, for example, a readiness log that comes with the aircraft, then construct position records in the MRO IT system and then start to build the aircraft configuration into that system. Then they would move on to the MPD (maintenance planning document) to create an operator’s maintenance program. That’s how we usually induct aircraft into our systems before moving on to the rest of the modules like supply chain, reliability tracking, planning… It means we are taking a highly digitalized asset and putting it into transactional systems whose DNA can be traced back to the nineteen-eighties or even before then. So, we have to be cautious as to how we do that.
To the right of the figure, we also talk about taking a digitalized asset and just inducting it at the top level. Can we do that? This, figure 5, does not present a solution but says to think about it differently. If you’re introducing a digitalized asset, then manage it as a digitalized asset.
The second consideration: many systems to consider
A second observation is that when you look at an MRO application environment, even in your own business, this is what it looks like (figure 6).
There is a core maintenance system but that will be supplemented with several applications; and the people who will supply those applications include a lot of the aviation IT vendors represented in this eJournal with their ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), niche solutions and Best of Breed (BoB) solutions. Users might start with ERP or Best of Breed but, of course, will add components, modules and functionalities as required.
The third consideration: integration within a complex matrix of capabilities
So, that’s the next thing, there’s no one-stop-shop; there are several ways of structuring a MRO IT application, system or solution but there are certainly many different applications available. Because of that, it is necessary to focus on integrations (figure 7); with many different applications there is no choice, you have to have a sound integration framework because these multiple applications have to be coupled, they have to communicate with each other and, of course, feed off each other.
What you end up with is often a complex matrix of apps, solutions and functions communicating with each other: however, that’s what is taking the focus away from what should be, looking from the outside in, looking at these solutions.
The fourth consideration: focus on the business objectives
Because of the innovation and the rate of innovation, there are many things that can become very popular; drones, mobile, Internet of Things (IoT), 3D Printing, wearables, Industry 4.0 the next industrial revolution (figure 8).
We often focus on ‘here is the next big thing’ which can take away the attention from what you’re trying to achieve which is on the right side of the figure. If you focus on people productivity, for example, or cost optimization, you’ll possibly find that you have the solution components already rather than assuming, ‘Okay, lets adopt the latest big thing’. That’s not to say don’t take on the latest big thing; however, the important thing is not the technology, per se, but how you fit that into what you’re trying to achieve in your business.
The fifth consideration: looking at the manufacturing space
ID-ation, which is, let’s say, the next aircraft due on the market, is an idea that will be born, of course, out of the OEM community, perhaps with the involvement of some airlines, and which will become an engineering feat, then manufacturing and then in service (figure 9).
So that’s the thread that you’re trying to get through all of these functions and functional maturity in the engineering and manufacturing space you’d see as a vast difference from the operations space.
The story I’d like to use here is, the Boeing 777 aircraft which was first conceived in 1990 as an idea as to what it should be, with the first one rolling off the production line in 1995 for United Airlines. That airplane was totally digitally manufactured, with no paper involved. So, does the digital twin, the digital thread exist? Yes, it does. Why then, more than twenty years later, are there still huge volumes of paper involved in the maintenance of that aircraft? It’s something that we need to reflect on as to how we are actually managing these aircraft assets that are emerging. And then, when we consider why should this disparity exist, because engineering, planning, production and supply chain are what MRO systems do. OEMs are doing the same thing that MROs are doing but in the manufacturing space. So why not work in a similar fashion. Perhaps those who say that OEMs need to be part of future thinking in this area are on to something.
In the figure, configuration and maintenance programs have been highlighted to suggest how that transition should occur in reality and what is important to both sides of the equation.
So, how do we solve this? What are the potential approaches for us going from left to right in figure 10?
We talked about five things in terms of considerations in the market place, the left of the figure, but the right side is, I believe, the future. We need to inherit that digital thread; it can’t be recreated, which is what we are trying to do with MRO systems. And that’s this entire application framework: if it already exists; let’s try to inherit it not reinvent it and don’t invent it from inside out, look at it from outside in and maximize the usage of the assets you are managing. Today, we introduce a highly sophisticated and digitalized asset into the organization and push it through traditional systems. You have to think, ‘what am I getting?’ and ‘how do I manage this?’ These are considerations as to how can we move forward with regards to optimizing MRO IT Systems in the future.
As we already said, above, make your business mandates the priority rather than saturating yourself with ‘how do I adopt this new technology?’ Traditional systems may not be enough. Acknowledge and manage the new digitalized asset.
What are the enablers? Looking at digital twins in a manufacturing space (figure 11) GE has been using them for some while as has Rolls-Royce, Siemens, PTC… they all use digital twins and robust threads for the assets that they manufacture and support.
This something that we need to take from and, as Siemens says, there is already a set of physical libraries for each product and that can be extended using the client’s own properties. These twins are robust; for example, when a customer takes delivery of a brand-new aircraft, Boeing has seven thousand parts in the assembly process which, at the touch of a button, can generate an Aircraft Readiness Log (ARL). So why are we using paper documents to try to re-create that in our systems? Just use the RFID capability that’s already on the component.
And then there is the matter of health monitoring which comes as standard with engines, aircraft and everything; in figure 12 you can see the eco-system that is emerging here.
On the left, the OEMs have a very mature eco-system but to the right we can see that the MROs are also starting to develop capabilities. Honeywell, with their Forge product, and Lufthansa Technik have co-operated in developing the Aviatar platform. Honeywell Forge is the aftermarket solution for managing components for reliability and function as the manufacturer intended with, of course, the maintenance cycle which is Lufthansa through their predictive analytics modules and software. They are co-operating although, again, in the operator space we are not quite as co-operative but that will soon come to us. However, the key here is that health monitoring tells operators what is wrong with the aircraft, what are the aircraft needs and what needs to happen, which is how aircraft are working today.
MSG-3, the Maintenance Steering Group of the ATA is 30 years old (figure 13)
It’s really interesting that no task in the MSG-3 program talks about aircraft health monitoring (AHM). It’s been around for a long time and happens with all modern aircraft while MSG-3 philosophy still refers to hard time, soft time and condition monitoring. Whereas, if we perform the aircraft health checking on the aircraft every seven days, we know that it is performing as it should be. There are several tasks in the current MSG-3 philosophy that cover those areas and we need to start moving in that direction.
From an IT standpoint and from a standards and protocols standpoint, there is a lot in terms of A4A and IATA coming up with how we should communicate when conducting aircraft transfers and for execution standards (figure 14).
This activity has intensified in the last three years and the sector needs to start capitalizing on or conforming to these standards and I don’t know how many of the applications in the marketplace could claim to conform with them. To me this is the lynchpin of co-operation and collaboration which need to cross to the operators and OEM sectors but also the MROs and with airlines as well. And I applaud some efforts that you would see on the other side with some of these products where the product and software vendors are going in that direction. They are creating centralized platforms for transferring aircraft, within the MRO systems which is an excellent move although it still remains isolated with just those users of their software rather than across the industry.
With LSAPs (Loadable Software Aircraft Parts), before any Boeing 787s or Airbus A350s can be dispatched, it’s important to make sure that the software is conformant. In that case, you might ask, why do we not also make sure the hardware is compliant? Why do we rely on MRO IT systems and configuration lists to tell us that? Why don’t we just get it straight off the aircraft? With 56 percent of the fleet expected to be data enhanced and connected over the next ten years, we might also want to look at hardware and Blockchain (Figure 15).
PWC says that if we capitalize on Blockchain that will deliver $3.5 billion savings annually and there are several emerging Blockchain solutions out there or proposed for parts, parts transfers, records transfer and tracing the digital footprints of these records and assets throughout their lifecycle. But, again, the OEMs are not afraid of it and are in it. So how do we capitalize on that in the operator community?
Operators are asking for more OEM involvement and the OEMs are willing to engage with that because, with their production order books full for the next eight years at current production rates, they want to be part of the aftermarket and are making inroads with predictive, prescriptive and AHM. We would do better to inherit digital threads and I think that, if, say tomorrow, you’ll be receiving a brand new B787, does it make sense managing that aircraft with the same systems as we use to control a classic 737? I honestly don’t think so: you shouldn’t, or you should find a way to apply a different philosophy.
And, by extension, the product life-cycle management (PLM) and Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) used by the OEMs should be explored. Not that you have to use what the OEMs have but we need to start looking at usability or reusability in terms of inheriting. And I think that we’ll see the OEMs (the Boeings and Airbuses) using the many total care systems that exists for airframes and engines but in terms of becoming digital companies. Honeywell is the perfect example of becoming a digital company as well as GE.
MSG-3 and IATA standards need to be revised and aligned and I think it’s the operator community that has to rally for that. Then last but not least, there needs to be more openness, trust and collaboration across platforms, and, of course, others in the ecosystem in order to make this work.
Allan is a Vice President at ICF with 32 years of industry experience as an Aviation M&E, MRO and Supply Chain solutions and systems domain expert. He is responsible for ICF’s MRO Operations and IT practice and he manages the Aircraft Commerce Consulting relationship with ICF. His experience includes managing application design, development, and full cycle implementation – from selection to go-live – for strategic clients in the MRO industry using different commercially available MRO IT products. In his career, Allan has fulfilled the following leadership roles: MRO IT practice and technical lead; MRO systems Product Principal; M&E and MRO Solutions Director and Manager of Technical Records, Maintenance Planning and Production Control.
ICF is a global consulting services company with more than 5,500 specialized experts, who are not typical consultants. They combine unmatched expertise with cutting-edge engagement capabilities to help clients solve their most complex challenges, navigate change and shape the future.