Could COVID-19 Accelerate MRO’s Push To Paperless?

aircraft engine
Although uptake of paperless processes has been slow to date, COVID-19-driven operational changes could lead to accelerated adoption.
Credit: Rusada

Owing to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the growth of the commercial aftermarket has been severely crimped in 2020. At the height of the first peak of the COVID-19 outbreak, which led to the grounding of about 80% of the global commercial aircraft fleet in May, market analyst Oliver Wyman estimates $17-35 billion could be wiped off the market’s value this year due to work cancellations. Many forecasters predict no real semblance of a recovery until 2022 at the earliest. 

This market downturn will lead to a much-changed aviation industry: Airlines will likely downsize their fleets through early aircraft retirements, the labor market will see redundancies run into the hundreds and thousands, and the MRO segment probably will consolidate.

One small crumb of comfort, however, could be an opportunity for MROs to fast-track innovation as a means of achieving operational and efficiency gains. Taking these factors into account, along with coronavirus-driven changes to working practices and a heightened sustainability awareness across the industry, a drive toward paperless maintenance could be forthcoming. There is optimism that the industry’s perceived lack of readiness to adopt e-signatures and to digitize aircraft maintenance records could soon change. Remote inspections, already adopted by several MRO players, including Ameco Beijing and SR Technics, could also become the new normal.

Although the sight of a technician operating an electronic tablet is common, more sophisticated digital methods have not been fully maximized due to a slow uptake, says Daniel Dutton, vice president of research and development for aviation at IFS, which develops IFS Maintenix software for managing an MRO business. Dutton believes the current climate could have a trigger effect. “The COVID-19 crisis might actually become the catalyst for adoption because not only has the pandemic grounded most passenger aircraft, it has forced aviation organizations and regulators to start to identify ways to meet social-distancing measures and remote working conditions,” he says, highlighting the heightened interest in e-signature adoption.

Two of the barriers to adoption often cited are a lack of prioritizing from the MRO to invest, particularly ones lacking the resources of a well-backed OEM affiliate or independent. “MROs internal to an airline will have fewer barriers than contract third-party MROs,” says Eric Hansen, CEO of software specialist Aviation Intertec Services (AIS). “For third-party MROs, a significant challenge can often be working with customer custom task cards, while this will be less of an issue for MROs internal to an airline where typically both the MRO and [continuing airworthiness management organization] are using the same software system. Regardless, third-party MROs will still see significant efficiency gains by, at the very least, implementing electronic job ticket assignment [to production personnel] and related electronic accomplishment signature capture.”

In 2019, the company assisted Canadian regional carrier Porter Airlines in achieving Transport Canada approval for paperless maintenance-records management using its RAAS maintenance and engineering software. Essentially, this eliminated the need for wet-ink signatures from the airline’s maintenance teams. Hansen estimates that gains for paperless projects are typically in the region of 5-10%, spanning the primary paperless objectives of timeliness of information movement, reduced administrative overhead, more complete maintenance-history research databases and a reduction of paper use. Hansen believes it could take 10 years for what he describes as “true end-to-end paperless” to become feasible across multiple entities in the commercial aftermarket.

A conservative approach from industry regulators is also often cited as an adoption barrier. IFS’ Dutton highlights, however, that in late March in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the FAA announced a policy allowing video links and other remote technology to help conduct inspections and validate regulatory compliance. In addition, he cites International Air Transport Association Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac’s call to transform paper-based and legacy processes into digital ones.

“Some of the global aviation bodies have their sights very much on introducing paperless processes and reducing regulatory roadblocks,” Dutton says. Geographical alignment between countries related to areas such as data sharing is also a factor that will need to be addressed should the uptake of paperless processes increase in the wake of the pandemic. “There will need to be some sort of cross-geography collaboration to implement a set of worldwide standards before all airlines and MROs move to fully paperless operations,” he adds.

Another element underpinning paperless maintenance tasks of the future is the advent of 5G internet connectivity, enabling faster speed for data transfers. Norbert Marx, CEO of China-based maintenance provider Gameco, says the company has increased its paperless operation across its hangars in Guangzhou and has turned its attention to the successor to 5G internet by entering into an agreement with China Telecom related to 5G applications.

“Since last year, all of our facilities are fully 5G-supported, and this is a type of pilot project aimed at developing these types of applications in the MRO industry,” he says. “We are already using this across multiple departments.” Marx adds that similar projects are taking place between the telecoms provider and other industries such as health care and finance.


Digital MRO Initiatives in 2020

Take a look at the gallery for a snapshot of some of the digital initiatives being introduced by the MRO industry in 2020.

Aftermarket specialist AAR hopes to be a paperless operation in 18-24 months, resulting in a 15% efficiency gain for technicians.

Alitalia is experimenting with e-logbooks starting with widebody aircraft at its line stations worldwide.

Iberia Maintenance is partnering with startup accelerator program Whispr to implement its hands-free voice-guidance platform on projects such as digitizing the aircraft-inspection documentation process on its Airbus A350 fleet, which was paper-based.

Joramco adopted EmpowerMX’s FleetCycle MRO software, which will eventually allow it to run a paperless maintenance operation.

Liebherr-Aerospace has developed proprietary service center software called eLIROM dedicated to processing all repair activities, which it says has the poten­tial to increase process efficiency by 30%.

Sabena Technics conducted its first totally paperless C check on an Airbus A340 in early 2020. It hopes to have all its maintenance teams working on the same paperless model eventually.

SR Technics this summer introduced remote table inspections using a video-streaming portal for any engine type or shop visit.

James Pozzi

As Aviation Week's MRO Editor EMEA, James Pozzi covers the latest industry news from the European region and beyond. He also writes in-depth features on the commercial aftermarket for Inside MRO.