As several aircraft systems are now computerised, it is becoming more common for the professional development of aircraft engineers to revolve more around computerised troubleshooting rather than manual skills.
Brett Levanto, vice president of operations at the Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA), believes that industry entities always have to keep up with technology and properly utilise new tools and associated methods, techniques and practices in order to perform work.
“As a result, the use of computers and other assessment tools are often needed in maintenance organisation training programmes. Of course, the repair station/approved maintenance organisation community is very ‘bottom heavy’, i.e. there are many small businesses that adopt new technologies with careful planning whilst bigger companies, with more capital resources, can be more exploratory with new technology,” he says.
“As a result, the kinds of training and skill required will vary by organisation, size and type of work. However, there will always be skill requirements related to the hands-on performance of work (regardless of the systems available to troubleshoot) and to report and assess the status of the system.”
Digital vs hands-on work
Air France Industries KLM Engineering & Maintenance (AFI KLM E&M) believes that the traditional line between mechanical engineers and avionics engineers is becoming vaguer.
“This trend has for a certain part already been incorporated in the regulatory framework when introducing EASA Part 66 whereby the mechanical B1 engineer also deals with more avionics types of problems. Then all traditional mechanical items are having computers and software linked to them.
In our training programmes, we have shifted to incorporate these new skills. We are helped of course by the fact that all our existing personnel, as well as the new generations of people we hire in their daily life are more and more exposed to using digital tools. So, we do not face major challenges based upon this trend,” says Vincent Metz, head of strategy, marketing & communication at AFI KLM E&M.
“These new requirements create a new sort of hands-on competence that is of a different nature compared to the old one, but the basis is the same, i.e. experience in troubleshooting and solving problems will provide the experience one can use for future needs.”
At a cultural level, there has been a trend for a long time away from hands-on/technical work.
“In the United States, skills training, shop classes and other skills-based learning opportunities are nowhere near as prevalent as they were 30 years ago. We have lost that foundational level of skill that every potential job applicant used to have,” says Levanto.
“That is not because of new technology or computer assessment, it is because of how we culturally approach learning pathways and career development. Perhaps there is a positive in the increase of new technology in aviation maintenance as it may attract applicants who would have thought the work to be too ‘blue collar’ otherwise.”
According to Iavor Konarov, head of production at Lufthansa Technik Sofia, despite the significant digitalisation in the MRO business as well as the fast steps in the automation of aircraft systems, the skilled aircraft engineer is irreplaceable due to his/her wide understanding of the aircraft systems.
“The maintenance tasks are getting more complex and in certain cases are requiring more reading, understanding and analysing of the results and measurements. However, the skilled hands and years of experience are more crucial. In addition, the aging of the aircraft and system components is always revealing new challenges that are not that easy to catch with automated systems,” he says.
“Nowadays training development is even more crucial to maintain a stable bridge between the new complex aircraft systems and human perception and comprehension. We constantly need to find new ways to provide training content in an easy way to understand in the environment of increasing complexity of aircraft systems and management system requirements.”
Levanto points out that in the United States, aviation maintenance training schools operate under a rule that has not been substantively updated since the early 1970s.
“The rule’s curriculum requirements are very prescriptive, so schools have extremely limited leeway to introduce new technologies that are not directly related to aircraft systems”, he says.
“In aviation, our focus is and should always be on necessary competency to perform work. Tools and technologies have been changing since the day the Wright Brothers first flew in Kill Devil Hills. Competency focus, procedural awareness and system safety should be the guiding principles of performing work no matter what resources are in use. From that perspective, it is not worth panicking about impacts on proficiency.”
Human factors training
Human factors training is an integral part of the professional development of maintenance personnel. Developments are being witnessed whereby maintenance organisations are being more about this training aspect.
“Human factors awareness, like competency, will always be fundamental. In aviation, just about every failure tracks back to the human element in some form. Since we are in a period of unprecedented public fervour about aviation safety, managing the ‘human element’ is incredibly important,” says Levanto.
“The perception that human factors is a familiarisation in the Dirty dozen principles and a simple explanation of human physics and psychology is long gone,” says Konarov.
“We are constantly searching for new ways on how to reach and work on the level of personal mindset and affect daily behaviours, which directly correspond to the organisational culture. There is a need that the core of the safety management system, leadership training and practices, and training systems get into an aggregated flow clearly shaping the organisational culture.”
AFI KLM E&M’s training programmes have a dedicated part on human factors.
“On top, we have safety programmes in our maintenance organisation that are focused on creating awareness of all safety-related matters and creating a safety culture built on learning and improving openness with no fear to ask for help or for speaking out on mistakes,” says Metz.
At the very top, it is the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that encourages national aviation authorities to include human factors training in their regulatory requirements.
“EASA and Transport Canada both have explicit requirements in their rules, including suggested topics, for human factors training. These requirements are included in the special conditions of the US-EU MAG, so American repair stations performing work under the bilateral must have training.
“The FAA does not have explicit regulatory requirements but strongly encourages its inclusion, even using the word ‘must’ in its guidance related to repair station training programs, even though the use of the word in an advisory circular does not create a requirement under the rules,” says Levanto.
Aircraft have experienced several developments with regard to their maintainability and certainly, the digitisation of the elements onboard has had an important impact.
“At AFI KLM E&M we are very active in the development of predictive maintenance techniques. Our Prognos suite is one of the industry-leading tools. Prognos changes radically the way of working. We can monitor the aircraft status and the tool is predicting much earlier, around 30 cycles, that certain problems will arise.
“This window allows to make all necessary preparation and really plan the maintenance activities. This drastically improves aircraft availability and reduces delays and cancellations for technical reasons. Further digitization is having a sizeable impact on troubleshooting processes around the aircraft,” says Metz.
There are still many possibilities in front of the OEMs to provide easier and quicker access not only to maintainers but also to other parts of the maintenance organisations, such as better direct possibility for planning purposes, according to Konarov.
“The easy possibility to use the maintenance data for easy transfer into customised job cards, as well as quick links to the proper corresponding other manuals would be a great step forward,” he says.
“In the development phases of the latest aircraft generations the large aircraft manufacturers have established mixed working groups in which MRO experts have been involved also to support them. For example, Lufthansa Technik’s engineers participated in the so-called A350 customer focus group and supported the manufacturer in the design and development phase of the aircraft with respect to maintainability and maturation.”
Specific initiatives at MRO companies
AFI KLM E&M’s training programmes are linked to fulfilling all required training and to enable the personnel to fulfill their technical duties.
“More and more we use new techniques to bring our training material to life. Nice example is the augmented reality (AR) technology we use in our technical training department that we developed in in conjunction with NLR, the Dutch Aerospace laboratory,” says Metz.
“On top, we try to familiarise our personnel also with the latest technologies. An interesting development is the Fablab factory we started at Paris Charles De Gaulle airport where we have all new technologies like 3d-printing. And these tools can be used by all our personnel to develop work-related items but also items for private use.
“The reason for this is that we want to expose our personnel to the use of these new technologies so that they get the feeling for it. Once they understand how the technology works and what it can bring they will link these solutions to their day to day working problems and it will stimulate innovation.”
To support the continuous professional development of personnel ARSA is pressing for a focus on career path development that is less concerned with airman certification and more focused on having the right body of knowledge to perform work.
“For too long, the industry has over-focussed on certificated mechanics (who will always be important and are required under the rules) at the expense of flexibility. As systems become more and more advanced – both in terms of necessary flight operations and ‘amenities’ like passenger entertainment and connectivity – we need the biggest possible net for collecting potential technicians, engineers and support staff,” says Levanto.
“The most successful examples are organisations that have stopped hiring A&P mechanics and instead hire non-certificated personnel that enter ‘helper’ training programmes through which they gain the necessary experience for their certificate. By doing so, companies can tailor the experience exactly to the work being performed, hire for ‘character’ and willingness to work/learn rather than credential and make a much bigger impact on the lives of the people they employ.”
Lufthansa Technik is increasingly looking at developing its team members not only on technical topics but also at supporting their personal development, such as interacting with colleagues, customers and peers.
“Risk assessment and management in daily life is not only an upcoming requirement but already part of our maintainers’ daily operations around the aircraft in a much more structured way and through understanding,” says Konarov.
“Parts of the classical leadership training and development are more and more provided not only to leaders and potentials but also to team members. Empowerment and self-managed teams are getting more common and not anymore just HR buzzwords.”