These days, an MRO software solution has to go way beyond managing events in the hangar, explains Mario Pierobon
Enterprise resource planning (ERP) has distinctive features when it comes to the aircraft maintenance environment. According to Dan Dutton, Vice President of Aerospace and Defence Product Management at IFS, in the aviation domain the whole ERP function is a very complex asset management matter. “What makes it peculiar is the depth of the configuration management requirements, the complexity brought by the need for parts tracking both on and off wing, the management of compliance to what is a relatively complex maintenance programme, the ongoing management of deferred maintenance and items that have impact on the functioning of aircraft systems as well as all the nuances that come around with the planning of both human and material resources,” he says.
In the complex maintenance network, one is somehow chasing assets all over the world and trying to make sure that maintenance can be performed, to maximise aircraft availability and minimise operational disruptions.
Peculiarities of ERP solutions
According to Oliver Albers, Vice President of MRO and Hospitality at Lufthansa Industry Solutions, in regard to MRO ERP solutions, it is important to differentiate according to the underlying business models – an airline with ‘integrated’ line maintenance has different requirements compared to an MRO service company. “The latter companies have a wide range of different requirements, depending on the service portfolio; a development company, for example, requires, among other things, close integration with a Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) system, while in a repair and overhaul operation, the connection of a suitable manufacturing executive system (MES system) is in the foreground,” he says. “In the area of line maintenance, the global market is focussed on a few products such as AMOS and TRAX, as well as many in-house developments by the airlines, while MRO companies use dedicated products tailored to the various airline customer requirements. What is common to all is the trend towards digitisation, for example with ‘paperless maintenance’ processes, mobile apps are being developed more extensively and the development of use cases for the use of ‘artificial intelligence’.”
The aviation industry is indeed characterised by highly complex business processes and ERP solutions in the aircraft maintenance space are required to keep up with the latest technological advancements of the OEM and the suppliers. “For example, an ERP solution should be capable of managing the digital part number (LSAP), track more parameters for reliability monitoring, and seamlessly interface with OEM/ supplier systems in order to exchange data. Technology plays a big role in providing solutions that can help manage these businesses efficiently and remain compliant,” says Sam Jacob, VP & SBU Head Aviation Solution at Ramco Systems.
One of the main aircraft maintenance industry’s requirements is guaranteed security, such as information access control, accurate permissions management, and work assignment and qualifications management. Therefore ERP solutions must guarantee that these requirements can be satisfied. “Keeping in mind that the business environment is constantly evolving, the requirements for ERP solutions change as well. In a competitive world, the winners are neither big, nor small companies, but those who can adapt the best to the dynamic business environment and ERP solutions must allow it. ERP systems need to be flexible and easily modified to allow companies to innovate and embrace process change at a maximum efficiency,” says Dainius Meilunas, CEO of Sensus MRO.
As for the developing MRO requirements, the current challenge while using any ERP system is data entry – which can be time consuming and prone to errors, declares Sam Jacob. “By leveraging AI/ML and a high amount of data available in the ERP system, tangible benefits can be brought in, wherein the ERP software suggests and automates transactions, thereby moving from a ‘passive’ ERP to an ‘active’ ERP. One use case which we are working on is how the auto system suggests the mechanics on similar discrepancies while reporting the new snag, and auto suggests part requirements for fixing the discrepancy based on historical data,” says Jacob.
There are a set of main drivers regarding the development of the aircraft maintenance repair and overhaul (MRO) requirements. “The manufacturers have sold to the NG-aircraft market with all their requirements and authorities and other business stakeholders had to develop regulations to manage these aircraft. In addition, the MRO solutions need to bring the data closer to the place where the maintenance activities are being performed to reduce the time gap between physical action and data availability and to ultimately get rid of paper. All initiatives in this respect are part of the digital transformation process. It should also be noted that the bigger the maintenance organisation, the more is the need for automation,” says Swiss AviationSoftware (Swiss-AS).
The topic of connectivity has also been a growing focus for MRO software solutions over the last decade. While in the early days an integration of MRO software solutions with a limited number of applications run by customers (finance/ops systems) was sufficient, today’s requests for connectivity within and beyond the companies’ boundaries are key for all maintenance organisations. “OEMs deliver data to and extract data from MRO software systems, data that comes from the aircraft is feeding the MRO software solutions, pooling contracts and parts trading platforms are connected with MRO systems, airlines groups and/or airlines are served by MRO providers and need to continuously exchange data – to name just a few examples. In order to manage this MRO solutions have to provide a vast scope of interfaces – at best created according industry standards (SPEC2000, SPEC2500),” says Swiss-AS. “In today’s digital transformation process, the importance of data is growing exponentially and MRO systems need to ensure that the data is consistent, accurate, and up-to-date since the users fully rely on such data in their decision-making process.”
Small and medium sized maintenance Organisations
ERP solutions are increasingly paying attention to the requirements of small and medium sized maintenance organisations. “If one looks over the past several years, they really were operating a single system and sort of accepting the capabilities as they stood, just because of the complexities of the integration and management of the multiple lifecycle pieces of software,” says Dutton. “One of the things we see as shifting is that with the advent of sparse offerings those are somehow low friction and supported by low cost adoption to business. With the proliferation of technology integrations, we are also seeing a shift whereby the mid-sized organisations are more open to buying best in class targeted point solutions.”
Indeed the needs of small and medium sized maintenance organisations may not be much different from those of bigger MROs, however for them it is increasingly important to have all functions in one system for the sake of being efficient, whereas bigger organisations might still rely in certain areas on point-to-point solutions with highly sophisticated functions for a specific business segment. “When looking, for example, at small/medium-sized airlines using AMOS they do not really use the system differently than larger airlines, although in most cases they do not require the full scope of modules and functions, since they typically outsource at least some of their maintenance tasks. The way AMOS is deployed and used tends to be influenced not just by the size of an organization, but also by the in-house maintenance scope, aircraft types, innovation spirit/budget of a company,” says Swiss-AS. “In cases where small/mid-size airlines outsource their maintenance activities to one or more independent MRO providers (which is usually the case), there is real value to be gained through easily and accurately produced work packages that can be directly passed from the airline engineering department to the MRO, enhancing efficiency and potentially safety. It is an area in which AMOS is particularly helpful; thanks to a generic interface that enables data transfer via the check-out/check-in of work packages, between the airline and its MRO(s). This is only one sample of how easily AMOS can be integrated into the customer’s environment.”
Smaller MRO companies especially may not act completely alone in the market, but may have to work together with other MRO companies in the role of a sub-contractor in the short term and more reliably. This creates special requirements for the creation of offers and the cross-company exchange of process and product data. “ERP solutions must therefore reflect cross-company processes and no longer, as in the past, monolithically limited to one company. A good example of this would be the SAP Asset Intelligence Network (SAP AIN), a common, cloud-based networking platform for all those involved in an asset ecosystem (operators, vendors, manufacturers, and service providers and others.) with the common goal of delivering asset performance throughout the lifecycle,” says Albers. “Smaller MRO operations generally have the same complex processes as larger companies, but usually significantly smaller IT budgets – so ERP solutions must support the complete process chain as much as possible to support in-house developments and standard interfacing to external tools and other companies. That is, small and medium organisations do not need optimized solutions, large organisations do leverage on the economics of scale”.
Meilunas points out that small/medium sized companies are particularly price-sensitive. “Thus, when choosing the right ERP solution, they also consider rapid and less expensive implementation. In addition, they look for the system that would be scalable as well as easily and quickly modifiable. As a result, when a small or growing company decides to change their business process, they expect to easily modify the ERP system as well. Companies do not want to be stuck with business process change simply because their ERP system prevents them from doing so,” he says.
Over the years, several MRO software providers have been focussing on bringing systems closer to the aircraft. Mobile solutions have been created for hangar, line and store. Although the solutions are ready, it takes a long time to implement them in the customer base. “We have been pushing the AMOSmobile solution by various initiatives into the AMOS community. The adoption process was initially very slow, though now the process towards digital technical operations has gained a lot of momentum and many customers have gone step-by-step through the process of overcoming all obstacles – such as regulatory barriers, the necessity to implement new processes and securing the budget for the project,” says Swiss-AS. “All digital initiatives while focussing on data instead of paperwork and minimizing the time gap between performance of a maintenance activity and data availability have the goal of maximizing the efficiency of the maintenance processes and the resource utilisation and increasing aircraft availability and customer/user satisfaction.”
Automation has also been rapidly evolving. “For large organisations with many aircraft, the creation of work packages was a heavy burden in the past on the shoulders of the planner which needed to be relieved. ERP systems like AMOS must assure that work packages are created at the push of a button so that, when the aircraft lands, the system proposes the tasks to be done. Such tasks are assigned to mechanics that perform them prior to the tasks being electronically signed off,” says Swiss-AS.
When it comes to connectivity and their interfaces, the MRO providers have to find a way to ensure the constant flow of data beyond the MRO solution provided. Whether it is the integration with on-board systems, the integration with OEM software, or the connectivity between MRO providers and airlines, all MRO software vendors have to address this need to integrate external systems or applications. “We now have a long list of interfaces (constantly growing thanks to a large team of developers who focus on interface development) that are in high demand in the AMOS customer community. Wherever possible such developments have been done according to industry standards,” says Swiss-AS. “With the last AMOS release we have added a whole set of SPEC2500 interfaces for the exchange of aircraft records in standardised XML format in the context of buying or selling aircraft or for lessors/lessees in the context of lease return.”
Digitisation is leading to multiple other new requirements for ERP solutions in the MRO environment, such as the integration of process- automation modules – for example, MES systems – Internet of Things (IoT) solutions and the embedding of artificial intelligence (AI) solutions in existing system landscapes. “This technological innovation should be easily combined with the ERP system in predefined services – such as in the SAP Cloud Platform (SCP). It would be important to host specific processes across manufacturers and operators on centralised Internet platforms with added value through unified processes and to benefit from data analyses,” says Albers.
Ramco Systems has developed new features that include the implementation of AI/machine learning algorithms in its aviation ERP. “An ERP system requiring constant inputs to perform/record tasks, often decreases productivity. Our Active ERP framework is aimed at improving productivity by bringing down the user interaction levels with the software. The tenets of our Active ERP framework are Zero UI, Frictionless interactions and Event driven notifications. The Zero UI concept is broadly categorised into three parts: Voice/Text-based transactions; Smart actions (using barcode/ OCR) and automated self-completing transactions,” says Jacob. “Our Aviation ERP offers customer portals that allow customers to interact with the service providers through Intelligent Conversational Interfaces or bots to track and perform transactions pertaining to their aircraft. Current capabilities allow users to perform various tasks ranging from stock enquiry to approvals.”
One of SENSUS MRO ERP modules is a time tracking solution that allows recording and analysing workforces across all aviation MRO divisions. “This tool does not allow time to stop once it starts running, it only lets users assign the time to a different task. Time tracking shows exceptionally detailed time entries that can provide up-to-the minute accuracy and see where employees’ time really went. Apart from functionalities, the change of working principles helps to reap the benefits as well,” says Meilunas. “Using the LEAN methodology in ERP allows us to assign and monitor work using a different approach. The LEAN methodology is being explored in ERP to make the work of each process as efficient as possible. Such ERP systems allow companies to easily develop and adapt to new processes.”
Research and development
Research and development (R&D) is ongoing on ERP solutions and in the future more features will be offered. “Looking at the future state of algorithms, one is also looking at better options for simulation and planning in the future. These are some of the areas of natural extension of what is currently being in research and development on ERP solutions,” says Dutton.
Multiple use cases are being developed at Ramco’s MRO Lab in Singapore, and at its Global R&D Centre in India. “We have an innovation execution framework in place that is primarily driven by disruptive technology and innovative culture. As a part of the innovation driven value chain, we generate ideas, validate them by creating proof of concepts and then implementing them as successful projects. The successful projects and IPs are then reviewed to understand the business value and competitive advantage they bring to the business,” says Jacob. “Our aviation roadmap is laid out to achieve zero data entry by extensively leveraging the capabilities of AI/ML. Ramco’s Voice as a new UI project leverages devices like Google Home and Alexa, enabling users to perform tasks through voice conversations. Current capabilities allow users to perform various tasks ranging from stock enquiry to approvals. Continuous work with customers improves the effectiveness in busy, noise prone shop floor environments.”
Another area of Ramco’s focus is on building the APIs to seamlessly connect with any third party systems including OEMs, part suppliers and shipping agencies. “By leveraging the ERP’s array of applications, MROs can automate operations, end-to-end, reduce overhead costs, manage inventory more effectively, increase aircraft availability, reduce aircraft on ground (AOG) situations, and control operations on a business-forprofit basis,” says Jacob.
Better built-in analytics and reporting is one of the priorities as data-driven decision making is crucial for a client’s business, affirms Sensus. “The industry is eager and explores the latest tools and technologies such as virtual assistants and artificial intelligence. But certain technologies that come from other business areas must be seriously tested for aircraft maintenance environment to avoid potential failures and misunderstandings. Therefore, it can be introduced to the market only step-by-step,” says Meilunas.
Lufthansa Industry Solutions is actively promoting the further development of the cloud capability, IoT and AI and their integration into existing ERP landscapes. “In order to be able to cope with the associated massive changes in existing process landscapes, special attention must be paid to the modularity and rapid adaptability of ERP solutions. Modern ERP vendors have transformed their pure ERP architecture into a digital architecture, offering open, cloud-based solutions as services and focusing heavily on the end customer. SAP with C/4HANA shows this very significant,” says Albers. “Simplification and standardisation of processes, procedures and data, centralised platforms, exchangeability of data and processes across manufacturers and operators, will allow reduced material and process costs for maintenance and increase asset values by better documentation.”
One last hot topic is the block chain technology for aircraft parts life cycle records. “Although the concept of block chain is technology-wise very interesting – we expect that it will still be a long way until this IT vision will meet real life. Standards need to be developed and we contribute to the respective working groups to be at the pulse of such trends,” concludes Swiss-AS.