Aftermarket Digitalization Progress To Continue Post-Pandemic
After nearly two years of leveraging digital technologies to serve customers during the COVID-19 pandemic, engine MROs and OEMs do not see this trend going away anytime soon. During a virtual panel about digitalization and predictive maintenance at Aviation Week’s MRO Asia-Pacific conference, stakeholders agreed that the pandemic proved the use case for digital technologies and accelerated their adoption.
While many companies initially focused on cutting costs at the beginning of the pandemic as a gut reaction, the more forward-thinking realized they still needed to plan for the long term, says Arun Srinivasan, associate director of engine health management at Pratt & Whitney. Srinivasan says investment in digital technologies continued “because they realized that, one, it’s very much needed during this pandemic portion, and two, people are not going to go back to the old way once they’ve realized digital can help them.”
Srinivasan points out that customers will no longer be willing to tolerate delays after spending so much time getting real-time feedback and communication through digital tools. “Those days are gone. The instantaneous responses, the ability to understand data as quickly as possible and the reaction of the customer is becoming very important,” he says. “I think digital investments were a huge part of the going-ahead plan for most companies.”
Martin Fuerl, head of product sales engine overhaul for Asia at Lufthansa Technik (LHT), says there is strong customer demand for digitalization in the areas of collaboration and data transfer. “I think this has been driven by the pandemic situation and the resulting travel restrictions, where digitalization has been given a great boost,” he says. “A very important question is: How can we reduce this need for in-person meetings to communicate and have a better idea about communicating via emails or phone calls through different time zones? That’s not really efficient in considering delays.”
Fuerl says the flexibility provided by digital technologies such as virtual table inspections will still be needed post-COVID. “One of the characteristics of the markets after the pandemic will be that they [will remain] unpredictable. They will be very competitive and require a lot of flexibility,” says Fuerl. “In an extremely complex environment, I think this can only be supported with digital measures.”
Srinivasan says the predictive insights from big data analytics and the ability to share them in real time have also become crucial during this tumultuous period. “We’re able to get more predictive—to be able to tell the customer not only that they need to do something but give them a lot more runway to plan for it and be able to do it. Especially in today’s environment where you’re not even able to travel too far, that ability to plan for maintenance makes a huge difference because customers can now move those assets to where maintenance crews are available such that it actually lowers the cost of maintenance for them,” he says. “You’re no longer doing remote operations at remote airports—it’s more at home base. And the more that we can pull back home, the greater the savings for the customer.”
GE Aviation has been investing in digital tools over the last 5-7 years, but Vaira Saravanan, regional manager of its Asia-Pacific customer and product support organization, says the pandemic accelerated GE’s focus in this area. “It has helped us to stay with the business model. Without digital, it would have been a big hindrance in operations,” he says.
According to Saravanan, digital acceleration over the last two years has also helped GE to cut down on a lot of waste, shorten lead times by 30% or more and increase accuracy of its predictions by 30% or more as well. “All of these things resulted in avoiding unplanned engine events—I would say on the order of 1,000+ events in the last 5-7 years,” he says. “If you translate that into dollars, it is more than $80 million of customer benefit.”
Luc Morvan, chief representative of MTU Maintenance Lease Services Singapore, says the pandemic confirmed the value of MTU’s investment in digital technologies. However, he points out that some of the biggest challenges now are to find ways to implement the tools within existing workforces and processes—and to tie everything up into a well-oiled machine.
“The main difficulty when it comes to implementing the solutions right now is to create the ecosystem part of it, meaning that they shouldn’t be sole solutions and sole tools working in their own little departments, but that they should all be combined and working together,” says Morvan. He adds that changing processes internally can lead to hurdles—particularly if some workers are hesitant.
“What is very important for us is making sure everybody is onboard when you’re deciding to do things better,” he says. “The idea is to develop these tools in a way where people are empowered, where people are concerned within all of the different engine shops we have, and that they’re also having a say and having the opportunity to build the future tool.”
Morvan says MTU has a dedicated global team focused on implementing digital tools, which works not only with internal staff but also with outside service providers, depending on whether MTU has decided to build a tool itself or buy one from a third-party provider.
LHT’s Fuerl echoes Morvan’s points about the difficulty in implementing digital tools. “It sounds very easy at the beginning, but at the end it’s really a challenge because the airlines or the users have an IT infrastructure landscape in place already, and now you’ve got all your service providers coming up with new individual solutions,” he says, adding that data coming from different sources adds further complications. “This all has to be combined, channeled and translated to the right points of view because otherwise there’s no point [in having] this data if it’s not where it’s actually needed with the right function and the right role.”