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Don’t complicate compliance

Solutions to compliance challenges should support engineers in the field, not hinder them, says Tim Rushent

The growing demands of regulatory compliance and the ever higher quality standards being set by and for the aviation industry have made MRO service providers experts at documenting their work. But while parts, provenance and procedures are backed up by the all-important paper trail, many firms fail to use the process to help their staff work more effectively.


So paramount is the need for safety that many engineers spend a large proportion of their time attending to paperwork rather than actual aircraft. A part or service whose source cannot be conclusively traced and proved is effectively of no value, as the client will reject it and the work will have to be redone.


The MRO industry has not shirked the demands of safety in an area of work where lives depend on it. Firms have developed robust procedures and breaches are rare. But the sector is also facing strong pressures on cost, as aircraft owners and operators can go anywhere in the world to have their assets serviced, and will drive a hard bargain.


At the same time, any firm seen to be cutting corners is likely to find itself losing customers fast. Fortunately, the compliance process can be harnessed as a time management tool for engineers if all the available information is brought under a single umbrella. This would allow a degree of workflow management to be introduced, while making the filling out of digital forms an integral and easy part of any service or maintenance job. Engineers can be alerted to work needs on a tablet or smartphone and the system can automatically check that they are qualified for the job. It can also cross-reference other inputs and confirm that equipment is correct, properly configured and has been suitably maintained. 


MRO firms have not been laggards when it comes to IT investment, but the competitive nature of the industry means that, inevitably, upgrades have been made piecemeal and new systems brought in for specific purposes as and when the needs arose. On top of that, even in a world where aircraft are generally monitored throughout their lifespan by asset management software that specifies the time of every service, the paperwork generated to prove maintenance that has been carried out is often still completed and stored in a form that would be recognised by a Roman scribe.


If anyone does have a query about an aircraft or part, they may well find themselves having to wade through a room of paperwork – or more likely, a service or parts supplier will do it on their behalf. Understanding the importance of traceability and dependability, these professionals have been prepared to search through paper archives and a wide variety of different computer systems to find part numbers and give detailed answers in person.


Of course, it can take days to answer customer queries when it should be immediate. If the entire archive is digitised and searchable, however, it is a simple step to turn it into a secure self-service system for the customer. Authorised staff at the operators or aircraft-owning firm would simply log in and find the solution to their query, along with all supporting documentation. In an industry where it is hard to stand out and even harder to compete on issues other than price, this is a valuable service and one where improved communication and integrated documentation can be harnessed as a differentiating factor.


Given the complexity of the aerospace industry as a whole and the level of detail needed – including proof of parts' origins, quality levels and correct servicing – the needs of MRO service companies go far beyond a simple computerised database, as original documentation in many formats must be securely held and easily accessed. MROs looking to increase productivity and gain the benefit in terms of differentiation and improved compliance that a fully traceable system provides, must develop a technology strategy that unites all levels of their operation and allows managers and perhaps even privileged partners to scrutinise them.


Such a strategy can be implemented relatively easily by harnessing enterprise content management (ECM) technologies. These systems, which can be employed across any business, not only digitise all documentation, but allow it to be viewed from a single source, regardless of the original documents’ format. Such technologies provide a fluid link between existing systems and the tasks currently undertaken. Being digital, and potentially cloud-based information, access can be made available to a variety of devices, with security levels tailored to the needs of the company and industry.


Increasingly, ECM is being adopted across many industry sectors to build more complex enterprise information platforms, which can also incorporate workflow and case management. Often these capabilities are adapted to automate business processes within a company. Aerospace manufacturers, for example, have used such platforms to help achieve a seamless and secure supply chain while improving efficiency and facilitating faster, more accurate feedback.


With, if anything, a better level of digitisation and IT investment than their counterparts in component manufacturing, MRO services providers look set to adopt enterprise information platforms. However, it is important to remember that implementing such systems is just the beginning. The key to maximising the investment for any firm is to develop a single platform, for workers from the shop floor to the airport tarmac.


Given a workforce largely composed of skilled engineers, the workers themselves will find effective uses for the platform. This bottom-up approach may seem counterintuitive when it comes to improving time management and workflows, but is essential in building a system that is widely used and minimises time lost to paperwork.


With an IT system adapted to work on their side, and on platforms of their choice, engineers will make services more efficient, while executives gain a valuable overview of the company's strengths and problems. At the same time, the service to clients can be improved while simultaneously cutting costs. Invariably, only the more innovation-focused businesses will get the process right first time, but they will set a trend that others are forced to follow.


Tim Rushent is Account Manager, Industry and Commerce, with Hyland, creator of OnBase.

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