While the switch from knowledge-based to competency-based maintenance training is a philosophic fait accompli, the issue facing the MRO industry remains one of getting that “knowledge transferred into actions,” says Holger Beck, chief commercial officer for Lufthansa Technical Training. In other words, translating theoretic lessons into real-world abilities. Airline and MRO executives believe the answer lies in integrating new technology and new methodologies, while maintaining the benefits of tried-and-true teaching techniques.

Not all that long ago, maintenance training was a bifurcated affair. First came a classroom lecture. Then it was time to practice the particulars of the airframe arts out on the hangar floor. That approach was “not efficient at all,” says Beck, carrying with it inherent risks of an unforgiving learning curve.

When done right, competency-based training doesn't eschew the classroom; rather, it front-loads the learning process so students can make mistakes “in the protective learning environment [of] the classroom,” says Beck.

That path, paved with sophisticated technology and illuminated by creative teaching techniques, just may be the training template of the future. Many MRO executives assert such a formula—properly applied—can cut training costs, maintain quality and better prepare technicians to repair the new generation of aircraft just beginning to enter service.

“That's certainly the path we went down with the 787,” says Steve Pennington, senior manager for maintenance training at the Boeing Commercial Airplane Co.

Learning starts in a special 787 classroom. Boeing has nine of them sited around the globe, a quartet in Seattle alone. Those classrooms are fitted with flat-screen monitors, around which partnered pairs of technicians gather. The screens afford students access to a 3-D virtual simulation of the seven-eight, which allows them to “virtually” navigate around the aircraft.

In addition to the fixed flat panels, they are armed with tablet PCs that access the aircraft's digital documentation screen. In turn, the tablets are linked, via Wifi, to the 787 simulation. The actual 787 onboard Ethernet connects to maintenance tablet PCs. Pennington says that means classroom students “can actually connect to the airplane simulation using exactly the same software, and in exactly the same manner, as they would out on the flight line.”

All Nippon Airways, the 787 launch customer, accomplishes lots of training via Boeing's Digital Turning Tool. The DTT, operating in concert with laptop PCs linked to the 787 Tool Box, allows technician “trainees to simulate troubleshooting and repairs using the [digital] training manuals,” says Akihiro Terada of ANA's engineering and maintenance's training department. He says the combination gives trainees a real edge, enabling them “to experience those practices which were [once] only available using the actual aircraft or a full-flight simulator.”

Then there's the on-airplane component. Initial training starts on the flight line at Boeing Field, just south of Seattle. The practical training program's next stop is the customer's facility and their own airplane. The hands-on component dovetails nicely with the classroom instruction, so much so that Pennington says, “the combined program reduces the on-airplane training time by approximately 30 percent.” That equates to immediate cost-savings for customer carriers as well as “reducing the potential for training-related incidents on or around the airplane.”

Traditionally, as aircraft become more complex the time spent learning about them increases. Pennington contends the 787 training regimen breaks that mold. In terms of time and cost, he says, “We've actually gone down in overall footprint compared to a similar course on the Triple-Seven.” What once took as many as 45 days now can be accomplished in as few as 35.

Cutting training costs isn't confined anymore to curtailing direct costs. Lufthansa Technical Training (LTT) is focusing on Total Cost of Qualification, says Beck, or TCQ. “Direct training costs are only about one-third of the TCQ,” he says. “We are looking at finding ways to significantly reduce the remaining two-thirds . . . and at the same time increase the efficiency of our competence-oriented training.”

One way Lufthansa is doing that is encouraging student-paced distance-learning. Central to that effort is making courseware available via an iPad LTT Viewer. Classroom simulation and easy accessibility are key components of the emerging template across the MRO spectrum.

ST Aerospace just upgraded its training systems, employing computer-based training and simulation, spurred by the belief that both knowledge and competency skills are “acquired more readily through [their] effective use,” says Stephen Chung, vice president of ST Aerospace's training center.

Elsewhere in Asia, Korean Air just implemented a new enterprise resource planning system that encompasses maintenance and engineering. The division is experimenting with the use of mobile devices, such as Galaxy Notes and iPads to distribute data and put it where technicians can get at it fast.

Technology begets access, and access engenders efficiency. Stephen Chung thinks the maxim is particularly applicable to next-generation aircraft. The sheer portability of data can boost competence. For instance, says Chung, “a trainee may copy pertinent maintenance information [from] the aircraft into storage devices like thumb drives or applications upon the completion of the training courses.”

Digital diagnosis and digital dispersal of information are integral to maintaining aircraft just beginning to enter the fleet. Beck believes training syllabi are beginning to reflect the fact that the emerging fleet of integrated aircraft “make it impossible to train on a single system . . . . You have to see the aircraft as a whole.”

For all the fascination, all the focus on cutting-edge tools and techniques, the irreducible element in the education equation remains the instructor. “Despite all the great advances we see in technology,” says Pennington, “a good instructor is really at the heart of a great maintenance training program.” In some MRO shops you're more likely to find one out on the floor, mentoring a trainee than shackled to a lectern with a pointer in hand. That's the case at AAR's Oklahoma City facility, where structures trainees undergo 18 months of mentoring from an experienced mechanic, a de facto instructor.

The aim is to build trainee confidence, and concomitant competence, says Philippe Fisher, AAR's Oklahoma City training manager. The new mentoring initiative is predicated on Fisher's remembrance of what happened “the first time I went up to an airplane after school.” He approached the aircraft and said to himself, “Now what do I do?”

Mentoring already has paid dividends for AAR. Since its implementation, Fisher says it has saved the facility “probably 30-35 percent” in terms of rework. He sees a direct correlation between the tried-and-true process and the reduction of reworks.

AAR reflects the fact that not everyone's working on the 787 just yet, and that there are resurrected training techniques which can—if properly applied—enhance quality and cut costs for today's fleet of commercial aircraft.

Ken Tacket appears cut from the same cloth as Philippe Fisher. “We feel we get more bang for our buck out of hands-on training,” says Pemco's director of quality and planning. That hands-on curriculum is underpinned by the use of mock-ups, where tasks as elemental as metal-forming are carried out before trainees hit the hangar floor. Harkening back to Holger Beck's assessment that it's best to front-load as much of the learning as possible, Tacket says, “it's imperative that instructors see students successfully perform tasks “in a hands-on, controlled environment.” That way, students receive immediate feedback.

Closing the feedback loop, and doing it such that the lesson sticks, is fundamental. It is the most classic of educational tenets, and it is just as applicable when teaching someone to work on next-generation aircraft as it is on today's fleet. “Feedback shouldn't be six weeks [later]. It should be immediate,” says Beck.

This is part of reason that Lufthansa Technical Training has significantly reduced the amount of time it takes to impart computer-based training. What once took as many as 40 hr. to cover as an overall topic now takes considerably less by focusing on methodological learning. For example, if LTT wants to teach a technician how to start an auxiliary power unit or an engine, and just that, “It takes only three to five minutes of computer-based training. Afterward, we discuss in a group what we have learned.” In such a setting, the feedback/reenforcement loop flourishes, and so does competency-based training.

But the tools to perform the training have to be readily available. Gameco General Manager Norbert Marx says, at least at this point, that engine run-up training doesn't satisfy the Chinese MRO's needs because of the absence of a simulator. That means “all engine run-up training would need an actual aircraft in the hangar, which may not suit the training schedule or may impact the production schedule.”

If the MRO industry is really to successfully front-load the learning process, simulators must continue to heighten the learning experience, cut the time it takes impart critical skills, and keep costs under control. In part, that's because “younger maintenance engineers have less real-life experience [because] we now have fewer troubles and repairs on the aircraft,” asserts ANA's Akihiro Terada. “Experience and knowledge are the aspects of being a maintenance engineer that only real-life incidents can nurture.” He says the industry struggles to compensate for that, especially on aircraft such as the 787 that employ Digital Turning Tools.

More broadly, Pennington argues that the industry needs to train for technology far earlier in the mechanic formation process. “Mostly, the emerging technologies are not adequately covered at the basic license level,” he contends. Moreover, “the added complexity of advanced system architectures is not always well provided for” in the early stages of the game. Far too often he believes training organizations focus “purely on the theoretical elements.” He says this is fine if the aim is to simply certify that someone has completed the requisite coursework, but not so good if on-the-hangar-floor competence is the goal.

Pennington maintains it would help if regulatory agencies revamp their requirements to keep pace with the technological tone of the times. “One of the biggest challenges in competency-based training is it's kind of outside of the requirements that the regulators publish at the moment,” asserts Boeing's senior manager for maintenance training. He says that while most worldwide regulatory requirements address knowledge-based and accompanying practical training, nowhere in the regulations do they talk about training to a level of competence. “It's a gap,” he contends, “that we need to close.”

Pennington believes that gap continues to exist, even in an age of Digital Turning Tools, 3-D simulations, iPads and innovation because of the perception among some that “training for competence . . . increases the overall cost of training.” And that, he says, “is a slightly more challenging proposition for the industry as a whole,” a challenge that's only going to become more acute with the influx of new fleets.