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COVID-19 Ignites Unexpected Revolution at Aviation Shopfloors

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By Sam Jacob, SVP & Head of Ramco Aviation, Aerospace and Defense, Ramco Systems

Amid the grim reports of commercial airline closures and bankruptcies as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the global aviation industry, an unexpected revolution has taken place across the tarmacs, hangars, shopfloors of carriers and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) service providers, across the globe.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has estimated that the pandemic-hit civil aviation sector experienced reductions of 50% of seats and 2.7 billion passengers in 2020, with the total loss of gross passenger operating revenue equalling US$370 billion. Airports and air navigation services lost a further USD 115 billion and USD 13 billion, respectively. More than 40 carriers have folded, leaving thousands of pilots and air crew laid off or furloughed.

But behind the headlines there is a silver lining – the less heralded but long-overdue transformation of maintenance & engineering, management of spares, certification, MRO and integration of disparate systems which determine how an aircraft is maintained and deemed fit to take-off.

Despite the rapid advances in aeronautical engineering which gave us faster and more fuel-efficient aircraft and adoption of e-commerce and online marketing of seats, the back-end of the aviation sector has long been a laggard in technological innovation.

Engineers and mechanics at hangars still grapple with paper or outmoded methods to record or certify an aircraft. Due to legacy issues, software systems of engines, avionics, equipment, spares and MROs are trapped in silos. Even though cloud computing and artificial intelligence/ machine learning (AI/ML) have been around for years, the promise of digital transformation has eluded the aviation shopfloor.

However, that change has come quite unexpectedly, in no small part due to the pandemic. The combined shock of mothballed aircraft and huge layoffs has served as a wake-up call to the industry, with many non-commercial aviation sectors leading the charge towards digital transformation.

Even though 2020 was an annus horribilis for the commercial airlines, other aviation sectors have been kept busy. These include operators supporting air logistics, specialised fixed wing aircraft of use in fighting forest fires (as experienced in Australia, Europe and North America in recent years), defence as well as medical evacuation (medevac).

Indeed, COVID-19 triggered a sharp increase in medevac operations – mostly for helicopters – due to heightened incidences of emergency airlift for infected patients or, more recently, of vaccines.
Whether for commercial carriers or for such specialised services, the pandemic has thrown into sharp focus the urgent need to overhaul the back-end to achieve three overdue but critical objectives.

The first objective is to reduce costs by streamlining processes and to migrate from paper to digital systems to improve efficiency and cycle times; the second objective is to achieve an integrated process level approach that targets the full value chain throughput, rather than interventions towards siloed efficiencies; and the third objective is to leverage technology and continuous innovation as a tool for exponential operational impact and obtain a competitive advantage.

All these players realise that the post-pandemic state would be much different – business is likely to contract and the only way to be successful is to offer significantly differentiated products and services, delivered at a much lower cost of execution, on a scalable, flexible and agile delivery model. Digitally transforming their businesses is key to realizing this objective; it is no longer an option, but a need to sustain and secure long-term business health.

So how can organizations achieve digital transformation, in an aviation industry context?

Eliminating paper from MRO operations: There is no second option for the industry to transition to paperless operations as paper-based operations are prone to lots of inefficiencies and longer turnaround times.

The rapid advancement and maturation of mobile technologies and digital content availability of technical documentation including manuals and job cards, has made shopfloor digitalization a reality.

The use of mobile technology in deep-level technical functions drives digital content consumption and also facilitates real time system usage and reporting. These functions include maintenance task card execution, inspections, warehousing operations, flight planning and operations and document approvals. This has an exponential impact on cycle time, data accuracy, decision-making quality and operational agility and scalability.

Automation of manual and repetitive tasks: The key ingredient to achieve more with less is automation. Good candidates for automation are routine and repetitive back-end activities and tasks such as procurement planning & execution, technical records upkeep, maintenance & materials planning and routine financial operations. Modern applications can achieve a very high level of automation through the use of AI/ML functions leveraging past data to detect behavioural and action patterns, domain specific rule engines and intelligent real-time alerts and notification structures.

Automation allows organizations to rapidly scale business growth without having to add expensive back-end overheads that traditionally linearly grow with business volumes as well as eliminates or reduces the drag and wait effect of back-end “processors” to a value chain, thereby increasing velocity, throughput and massive reductions in cycle time.

Integration with ecosystem: There is a lot of interdependence in the industry and operators, OEMS, MROs and maintenance departments. These organisations have to work seamlessly to exchange technical documentation (such as manuals, service bulletins and ads), operational data, part availability information, work package and compliance data and commercial documents such as POs and invoices.

Business applications need to be interoperable, integration ready, deployable in hybrid models, and facilitate management of an integrated automated business process that transcends organizational boundaries in order to create a seamless self-orchestrated platform. Applications need to be built on modern application architectures, be API ready, have built-in adaptors with industry platforms such as OneAero and Aeroxchange, as well as pre-built integrations and must integrate with a host of complementary solutions for managing other specialized functions, such as expense management, bank integrations and shipper aggregators.

Our industry has held on to the old way of doing things for far too long. The pandemic has forced us to modernize and innovate. It can well be the catalyst for true digital transformation of aviation shopfloors, globally.

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