Enterprise resource planning is key in the domain of aircraft maintenance, as Mario Pierobon finds.

    The role of the enterprise resource planning (ERP) is to model the business process and to record, store, manage and interpret business data.

    As such, complexity is probably reaching an apogee for aircraft maintenance where asset structures are always complex and governed by a large variety of life cycle management rules and stakeholders. Moreover, operations are 24/7 and require a very high service level.

    The situation is further emphasised by the amount of aircraft maintenance regulations, which very often lead to audits carried out by aviation authorities or customers.

    The role of enterprise resource planning

    “Enterprise resource planning modules used in a company are integrated by definition, hence providing a healthy consistency of data across the complete organisation.

    As such, enterprise resource planning is covering a wide numbers of processes, including maintenance operations, finance, use of business resource including human resources, sales, purchasing, engineering, bill of materials and supply chain,” says Rodolphe Parisot, vice president of Digital & Innovation at Air France Industries KLM Engineering & Maintenance (AFI KLM E&M).

    “On the one hand, enterprise resource planning is an aircraft maintenance organisation’s system of records. On the other hand, it is also a key enabler for an MRO to become a ‘data-driven’ organisation. In today’s world where data importance is growing exponentially, relying on accurate, meaningful and consistent data becomes a key differentiator.”

    AFI KLM E&M uses several systems, including SAP and Maintenix, the latter being produced by IFS. According to James Elliott, director of the MRO product line at IFS, driving aircraft safety, regulatory compliance, reliability and availability within a manageable budget depend heavily on aviation maintenance enterprise resource planning business platforms.

    “While the tech industry continues to fawn over big data, the internet of things (IoT) and the imminent artificial intelligence (AI) revolution, it is important to recognise the vital role enterprise resource planning software plays in leveraging all this technology and using it to keep decision-makers informed,” he says. “Uniting an organisation end-to-end with enterprise-wide control, visibility and data collection has the potential to improve both business performance and aviation passenger safety. This is true for most in the aircraft maintenance industry, whether your organisation is an airline, OEM or independent MRO.”

    Inside MRO facility

    Swiss AviationSoftware’s (Swiss-AS) AMOS is an enterprise resouce planning solution that allows users to manage their maintenance, engineering and logistics needs and to assure their compliance with the complex system of aviation regulations.

    “By this, MRO software plays a central role with regard to safety, compliance and cost management. Maintenance is a significant cost factor for airlines (and MRO organisations of course, too), and, due to the tight margins and competition, aviation companies are forced to organise all business areas as cost-effectively as possible – including resources in terms of manpower and material,” says Claudia Weiss-Giessler, vice president, marketing at Swiss-AS.

    “AMOS provides the customers with industry-leading processes, allowing customers to benefit from efficient maintenance slot and resource planning, optimised stock-levels and so on. Due to the full integration of AMOS as an end-to-end solution, departmental boundaries can easily be overcome and the communication and data exchange between the different maintenance areas can be optimised (for example, engineering, planning, shop floor and so on).”

    The importance of integration

    In aviation maintenance management, there is such a significant dependence on ensuring the right part is available at the right time – keeping the aircraft running smoothly and on time is vital for airlines to deliver the desired level of customer experience.

    In this context, the integration of different maintenance management functions is always sought by enterprise resource planning. “When the functional landscape is not covered by a single integrated enterprise resource planning, companies have to put in place strong master data management to reach high benefits associated with big data and machine learning,” says Parisot.

    “Whether we are talking commercial air travel or a military organisation relying on the critical capability of their platform, it is all but mandatory that inventory management is integrated with the resource planning and maintenance execution solution,” says Elliott.

    “The most powerful resource planning and maintenance solutions have to offer highly configurable offerings that include the ability to integrate with an incumbent inventory management system that may be part of an aviation organisation’s long-term IT strategy.”

    Inventory management is an essential part of AMOS. It is fully integrated, and an interface to a third-party software is not necessary.

    Air France KLM using enterprise resource planning system

    “We regard this integration of inventory management as an important asset of AMOS being an end-to-end solution since from maintenance planning overproduction to the reporting back of maintenance events the availability/usage/tracking of your material is an essential part of the overall maintenance process. Working with a third-party application to manage your inventory ends up in the creation of multiple interfaces to connect your MRO solution with such an external inventory management system,” says Weiss-Giessler.

    Enterprise resource planning systems can be integrated with other corporate information systems and further improve efficiency in information flow.

    “AMOS is an open system based on advanced technology and can be easily linked with other corporate information systems while using generic interfaces to finance accounting, HR and operations control systems, these being the most common interfaces. The integration of AMOS allows users to work across departmental boundaries. As of today, we offer a long list of interfaces that are ready to be implemented,” says Weiss-Giessler.

    “The interfacing technology can easily be adapted to the application with which AMOS is interfacing; everything is possible, from flat files over direct database access to XML based interfaces. Due to the open architecture of AMOS, no restrictions are imposed from Swiss-AS, and the AMOS customers have many different possibilities on how to export and import data. Creating interfaces has become part of our daily business, and, over the years, Swiss-AS has succeeded in gaining vast experience when seamlessly connecting AMOS with other corporate systems.”

    With regard to the integration of information management systems, Elliot notes that, while the IoT may seem like a modern initiative, integrating the onboard systems for aircraft and engines’ health monitoring and usage tracking has been in place for over 20 years.

    “This began predominately in the defence sector, but it is now being applied to commercial aircraft operations. Integrating with onboard systems, as well as satellite communication-based flight following systems, provides the extra lead time and ability to predict maintenance events, and therefore take preventative measures,” Elliot says.

    “It is my expectation that we will see this trend continue to expand. This will move from the day-to-day operation of aircraft to a point where critical integrations between operators and maintenance providers will greatly improve longer-term maintenance planning and reduce the turnaround times for major aircraft, engine or complex assembly visits.”

    Enterprise resource planning system

    Dedicated skills

    Enterprise resource planning implementation and maintenance require several categories of skills. The one of ‘business enterprise architect’ is probably one of the most critical profiles.

    Parisot quotes the MIT definition to highlight that the role’s responsibility has to do with “organising the logic for business processes and the IT infrastructure reflecting the integration and standardisation requirements of the company’s operating model for delivering goods and services to customers”.

    “ERP implementation requires a strategy that is fully aligned with the company’s strategy. Service level to customers, the value chain of the company, the development of new products or services are topics that have all an impact on the ERP functionalities and capabilities as well as on project costs,” he says.

    AMOS customers typically have an AMOS competence centre (ACC) in place, which has to fulfil two major jobs to safeguard a smooth operation of AMOS: the management of system administrative tasks (IT Admin) and application management (AMOS Admin).

    The IT Admin is typically a person with an IT background, while the AMOS Admin comes usually from the business side. AMOS Admins are often AMOS key users who have been trained in-depth during the implementation project and grow into this job profile.

    “The typical tasks of the IT Admin defining user roles/access rights regarding the AMOS application, creating logins for new users and setting parameters after consultation with ACC team,” says Weiss-Giessler.

    “The AMOS Admins are responsible for the application management and need to cover with their know-how the complete spectrum of AMOS functionalities as well as AMOS-related business processes. The typical tasks include the forwarding of all the issues/problems to Swiss-AS, which cannot be solved in-house by the ACC and defining processes and workflows for proper usage of AMOS within and beyond different departments.”

    IFS notes that dedicated ERP or IT personnel is something its customer base is moving away from.

    “As airlines and independent MROs look to focus on their core business it is often decided to forego IT management on their premises and instead make use of hosted managed services and cloud offerings to support their ERP solutions. This leaves them able to focus on the best possible user experience for their business users and concentrate on the core the benefits they offer throughout their organisation,” says Elliot.

    Enterprise resource planning data management process

    The development of IT

    IT providers need to keep pace with technology change and information technology is also developing with regard to ERP solutions.

    “We observe more and more ‘standard solutions’ that are customised for some dedicated verticals. These solutions are standard in a sense they will be maintained and improved by software editors. Nevertheless, they are customised to the business environment, such as aircraft maintenance, aviation supply chain, transportation management and global trading solutions,” says Parisot.

    “However, it is always a huge effort to implement those solutions into a given enterprise IT landscape. First of all, because customisation always goes far beyond the standard solution. Secondly, because it requires a lot of knowledgeable people with a very high level of abstraction to concretely understand how to translate business processes into an ERP configuration. Additionally, the topic of integration into the company’s legacies landscape is always a difficult one, both technically and business-wise. Implementing an ERP always leads to significant changes in the organisation itself.”

    Matthias Wagenmann, vice president, research and development at Swiss-AS, believes that the aviation industry, due to being highly regulated, is rather slow in adopting new trends and technologies.

    “For example, e-signature and paperless maintenance are buzzwords for quite some time, but still just a small amount of airlines have succeeded in achieving its goals in this respect. Even if AMOS fully supports e-signature and has developed strategies to implement paperless maintenance in maintenance environments the adoption of such innovations happens a low speed,” he says.

    “Another hot topic is the blockchain technology for aircraft parts life-cycle records. Although the idea of using blockchains is very interesting, we expect that it will be a long time until this IT vision will meet real life. The current discussion when it comes to digitalisation and artificial intelligence always turns around the topic of data holding. We currently see diametrical trends. There is centralisation (driven by cloud providers and big data), segregation (driven by privacy protection regulations or trade disputes), as well as distribution (driven by technologies like blockchain).”

    Despite the challenges, ERP solutions are evolving towards data-centric services.

    “ERP is now very often offered in a Cloud version, with advanced data intelligence capabilities: new generation business intelligence tools include data visualisation, big data, analytics and machine learning or the IoT platform. These new capabilities strongly increase the value of ERP as systems of records. Data are recorded, consistent, interpretable and now ready to deliver more business value, as well as actionable insights by the combination of a huge amount of those data together with advanced capabilities,” says Parisot.

    IFS’ own division IFS Labs is dedicated to exploring and innovating with leading-edge technologies to identify opportunities to move IFS’ client businesses forward.

    “In keeping with the market desire to adopt the latest customer-centric technologies, beyond our ongoing UX focus and expertise, we have already seen rapid and eager adoption of mobile solutions,” says Elliot.

    “Most recently, we have seen customers embrace fully integrated cloud-based aviation software. We have also begun partnerships with our clients on exciting projects from analytics to augmented reality and predictive maintenance.”

    With regard to the upgrades related to data centralisation, segregation and distribution, Swiss-AS decided to go for a hybrid solution.

    “While using local data holding for operational and private data (or data holding in a private cloud), we offer with AMOScentral a secure gateway to central cloud services and enable thereby the collaboration between different market participants. AMOScentral, being a cloud-based message broker, will route data from different sources between members of the AMOScentral distribution network,” says Wagenmann.

    “This hybrid approach would also be applied to the usage of AI. A cloud-based neural network could be fed and trained with anonymised data provided via AMOScentral from the AMOS customer base, but the operational decision making of the AI is then executed in the local environment of the customer – always provided that the customer authorises such AI to influence operational decisions.

    “This allows our customers to exploit the technological advantage of specialised cloud AIs without losing their data sovereignty. Our vision is that AMOScentral orchestrates the required data flow between different airlines, MROs, OEMs, pool providers, lessors, authorities and cloud services in a transparent manner. AMOS consolidates this distributed information and offers its customers a uniform and holistic access to such data flows, independent of the data provider.”