The maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) market is set for growth – the Middle East market alone is set to grow from US$9bn in 2019 to $13.2bn in 2029, according to Oliver Wyman’s MRO report – of which $8bn will be spent on engines alone. Boeing’s longer-term prediction is more ambitious, estimating the value the Middle East aviation services market at $745bn by 2037.
In light of this burgeoning market, MRO operators are understandably looking for smarter ways to operate and increase productivity. As it stands, MRO companies are turning to technology to automate processes across every possible department – from procurement to planned maintenance and partnerships.
James Elliott, director of the MRO Product Line at the Aerospace and Defence Business Unit at IFS, notes that there has been “unprecedented demand” on operators and MROs to innovate faster, which is pushing them to adopt new technologies that improve the passenger journey — from in-flight entertainment systems to the latest avionics. There is more emphasis being placed on making solutions very user-friendly for specific use cases.
He notes: “In order to deliver these digital MRO solutions, knowledge transfer is going to be key. Commercial aviation maintenance software tools have benefited from significant developments in recent years and using technology, such as augmented reality for one-to-many knowledge transfer, will make it easier for new recruits to learn, receive on-the-job training and understand new and complex assets.”
A relatively newer tech development that is now being seen in the MRO segment is the use of blockchain. Dubai Airshow’s research reveals that according to Accenture, blockchain can be used to monitor parts, maintenance and servicing across an aircraft’s lifetime. The consultancy has developed its own blockchain (patent pending) which would allow OEMs, MROs and operators to see the as-flown history of an aircraft and its components to then update it in a secured and trusted manner. It’s not a new direction for Accenture; the company has previously claimed that blockchain’s value in MRO operations lies with providing immutability, automation, cost-effectiveness, auditability, decentralisation, and security.
Another way in which MRO operators can increase efficiency is by using 3D printing technology. Long lead times are soon expected to be a thing of the past; specific parts can be quickly 3D printed and with limited waste. There certainly is precedent for this in the Middle East. In 2017, Strata, Etihad Airways Engineering and Siemens revealed the Middle East & North Africa region’s first 3D-printed aircraft interior part, and the monitor frame was set to be used as a replacement part on Etihad Airways’ aircraft. Using the additive manufacturing technology (known as 3D printing) allows for the removal of the requirement to design and build tooling for the manufacturing process.
As the largest MRO provider in the Middle East, Etihad Airlines Engineering has expanded its interests in additive manufacturing and in late 2018 forged a relationship with EOS. The new relationship will work towards producing additive manufactured parts in Etihad’s 60,000 sq m Abu Dhabi facility, not only for its parent airline, but also for the others that it services. The company services contracts outside of its parent airline and has recently created a series of strategic alliances with OEMS and other MROs across the globe to capture more global business and regional growth.
Using cloud software is also a way in which technology can be used to improve MRO productivity. IFS’ Elliott says that automation in the fleet and long-term planning process is now a prerequisite for any maintenance operation.
He notes: “More operators and MROs are realising that legacy maintenance planning and scheduling tools can no longer offer competitive levels of availability. SaaS [software as a service] delivery provides the flexibility and scalability to cover fleets as small as 10 aircraft, and as large as more than a thousand.
“Cloud software will be a necessary tool in the new aviation IT landscape to speed up the delivery of these new capabilities and eliminate the cost of purchasing and managing on-premise technology. SaaS will remain a primary model for this. Users can now be up and running with a SaaS planning solution within a few weeks.”
Nick Weber, VP MRO Services Middle East at ExecuJet MRO Services, says the company is currently using an ERP system called Quantum that caters for all activities from initial quoting and raising of aircraft work scope proposals through to on job labour and skills management via bar coding and then onto final billing and invoicing. All elements of the work process including spare parts and actual planning functions are managed via this programme, providing full transparency to all stakeholders involved. It further provides the highest standards in terms of historical records and traceability as required by industry norms.
Weber reveals: “ExecuJet MRO Services, as a collective group, is busy looking to further enhance and streamline its processes, and though the previously mentioned Quantum programme offers all that’s required, new cloud-based programmes offer greater simplicity and efficiencies. To this end, we are looking at a sister company’s ERP system, Corridor, which given our global reach will allow further development of best practices and work process commonality – all being disseminated from a central cloud based platform.”
Elliott further says that the main tech at the forefront right now is predictive analytics. If data can be collected, there are many ways in which it can be exploited. He notes: “Think about a paper logbook on the plane, which is only accessible serially by a single person at a time. Handwritten entries are not searchable, can’t be used in analytics and can’t be mined for information. All the data inside a logbook is dark – useless.”
Introducing an electronic, connected logbook, he says, allows it to be used by multiple people at the same time from anywhere. A mechanic can see what faults are on the aircraft, arrange for proper parts and tools, and be productive the moment they get to the aircraft. “And of course, that digital data can be aggregated and mined. IoT will also help, with sensors being used to measure and collect data.”
A whitepaper released by RS Components in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply Chain (CIPSC) – Indirect Procurement Report 2018 – mentioned the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and noted that there has been a slow take-up of this technology, attributing this to maintenance engineers adopting an approach that puts the completion of intensive tests ahead of being early adopters. One of the surveys conducted for the whitepaper revealed that only 7% of respondents said that their company had a strategy in place for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)., Nevertheless, once the applications of IIoT on the MRO floor are thoroughly approved, it’s fair to say any MRO not using IIoT will be left behind.
Continuing with the benefits of cloud-based software, IFS is seeing customers expressing interest in buying very focused solutions that can deploy with little or no involvement from IT – essentially this requires solutions delivered from the cloud.
Elliott comments: “Airline IT departments are typically overwhelmed with projects – and ramp-up time for IT to help with a new initiative can be months. With cloud solutions, very focused business applications, such as long-range maintenance planning, can be deployed quickly – and of course, they are budget-friendly for airlines of all sizes. You don’t need a large fleet and a large budget to take advantage of these solutions.” To this end, the company’s IFS Maintenix Fleet Planner is a cloud product and focused on long-range maintenance planners. “The concepts used and the screen layouts are very intuitive to a maintenance planner,” Elliott adds.
“If we tried to make that application do more, to reach outside of that core planning function and add different types of workflows and different user roles to it, it would lose focus. This approach is driven by the development of mobile applications. App designers try to make the use of their apps obvious and intuitive – they don’t come with instruction manuals. We are trying to do the same across all our products – make them easy to use and intuitive for the person trying to do their daily job,” says Elliott.
ExecuJet’s Weber points out that work flow processes are key to ensuring maximum productivity and ERP systems need to ensure they create an environment that is simplistic for the engineer (users in general) on the floor to work with and be in a position to fully populate all required data as they progress through inspection phases. “Productivity can also be enhanced by ensuring all personnel are fully trained and proficient in their respective areas of expertise, which along with a good ERP system, creates a solid and common base line to improving efficiencies,” Weber adds.
He concludes: “Due to the low margins in the MRO industry, businesses are constantly looking to evolve new techniques and these are often driven through internal and external audits of the different departments to identify not only non-compliance to the existing policies and procedures, but also identify areas that could be improved upon, be it for efficiency, safety or overall quality.”