Providers of aircraft maintenance, repair and operations products and services are relying more on digital systems to keep their aviation clients in the business of flying.

At Avocet MRO Services, a small but growing family-owned aircraft maintenance and repair company, the pressure’s always on to limit its clients’ costly AOG, or aircraft-on-ground time for maintenance and repairs.

But with new digital technology that helps its managers and technicians better view and respond to what its clients need—whether for quickly ordering parts or scheduling maintenance—it can better compete against larger rivals, says Edward Gray, Avocet’s chief operating officer and general manager.

The iPad will be our new best friend.

Maintenance costs can add up quickly when an aircraft sits on the ground for any length of time, especially if critical tools or replacement parts are not in stock and readily available, Gray says. And that’s in addition to lost revenue from the aircraft not doing its own job transporting people and cargo in the skies.

Under traditional operating procedures for MRO services like Avocet’s—which provide airlines the maintenance, repair and operations technicians and products needed to keep aircraft in top flying condition—it can take days to order and receive supplies, and get them to technicians working on grounded aircraft. And if an out-of-stock component or tool is needed the same day or overnight, shipping costs skyrocket.

But those procedures are changing. The aircraft MRO industry has been moving more into digital operations supported by internet-technology-related systems designed to monitor aircraft performance and maintenance requirements. These systems compile data on maintenance work, and use web analytics and artificial intelligence applications to better understand and plan maintenance schedules, and improve the timely production and delivery of parts and tools. The systems are designed to help airlines, MRO services companies, and suppliers of parts and tools better share information and collaborate on how to improve their overall operations.

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Avocet, with the use of web-based software for managing its operations, has made significant headway in cutting AOG time, Gray says.

In the past year, for example, Avocet has been using an upgraded Pentagon 2000 Software web application suite for managing aircraft maintenance operations and enabling its technicians to quickly order replacement parts and tools from a mobile device on the job site. “The iPad will be our new best friend,” Gray says.

Instead of taking days for a technician to manually process an order with his maintenance facility’s supply house, he can instantly search an online supplies system designed to quickly identify parts and tools designed for his aircraft, and forward an order to his facility’s purchasing manager to immediately request what’s needed from a vendor if it isn’t available on site. If necessary, the technician can request expedited delivery to receive what’s needed within a day.

Alerts to Boeing

The web software is also helping Avocet, its suppliers and clients better manage maintenance schedules and parts inventory, helping to avoid out-of-stock parts inventory. Avocet takes the information compiled in the Pentagon 2000 system about completed maintenance and repairs, and parts ordered, and shares it with both its suppliers and aircraft maintenance clients. If the system shows a run-up in particular parts ordered for maintaining Boeing 737-400 aircraft, for instance, Avocet notifies Boeing, which would then alert its own suppliers to ramp up production of those parts.

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That capability to better view and control maintenance work and related supply chains is helping Avocet, a growing, family-owned company, better compete against often larger rivals, Gray says. “We recently won a contract because of our knowledge of aircraft and our operating flexibility,” he says.

Avocet’s use of Pentagon 2000’s online MRO services management system is part of a growing trend in an industry tasked with keeping a globally dispersed fleet of some 26,000 commercial aircraft flying for the world’s passenger and cargo airlines. Airline companies will spend about $77 billion this year on MRO products and services, a volume that will reach about $115 billion in 2028, according to estimates by the Oliver Wyman management consulting firm.

Although there was no estimate available of how much of that market is handled through digital commerce, interest in e-commerce is increasing in the aviation MRO industry, says Kirk Baugher, executive vice president, business development, Pentagon 2000 Software. “Our customers want more 24/7 e-commerce,” he says. “Our e-commerce module is growing in sales.” With many aviation MRO services operating with stations around the world for maintaining the fleets of international airlines, maintenance technicians need the ability to place orders from anywhere at any time, regardless of where their suppliers are based, he adds.

Pentagon 2000—a provider of enterprise resource planning software designed for managing business operations in several industries including aerospace and defense, raw materials, power generation and automotive—also provides multiple ways for its users to go online to find and purchase equipment and supplies. Since last fall, for example, it has integrated its software with ePlane Inc.’s ePlane.com, a marketplace where buyers and sellers of aerospace products can complete online purchase transactions with payments processed via credit cards, a PayPal escrow account or bank wire transfers. EPlane, which launched last year, is not now charging fees to the buyers and sellers on its marketplace, but plans to eventually offer fee-based services related to such areas as financing and product placement in site search results.

Companies like Pentagon 2000 Software and ePlane are expecting to grow along with an expanding aerospace MRO services industry that shows no signs of letting up. With oil prices primed to increase, pushing up a major operating cost for airlines, more airlines may feel pressured to keep their existing aircraft running for several years longer than they might if fuel expenses were lower, Richard Brown, head of the aerospace practice at global consulting firm ICF, said during a presentation last month at MRO Americas, an annual conference and exhibition for the aerospace maintenance industry.

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Also driving up demand for aircraft maintenance products and services, he added, is the rising popularity of e-commerce and expedited fulfillment of online orders. “Amazon Prime is helping to drive demand for airline maintenance,” he said.

‘Race is on’

The role of digital technologies and processes in MRO services are a natural complement to that trend, experts say.

“The race is on” among MRO aviation services companies to provide more digital services, Brown said, adding: “We as an industry are learning what makes sense and to see where the value is.”

Internet of things systems, for example, are embedding sensors into aircraft components to constantly relay information to data centers on how parts are performing and send alerts when components are due for maintenance.

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Helping airlines to maintain that level of performance is a community of software companies and MRO services firms using the latest in web technology systems designed for purchasing products online as well as managing operations. The MRO aviation management application providers, in addition to Pentagon 2000 Software, include such companies as Applied Database Technology and its Wings application; Aerosoft Systems, with its DigiMaint system; Aviation InterTec Services, which offers new mobile applications for its M&E/MRO system; IBM Corp. and its Maximo Asset Management application; Ramco Systems and its M&E/MRO application; Volartec and its Alkym Management & Control System for Aircraft Maintenance.

The ability to place online orders and collaborate with suppliers and clients, Gray says, will go a long way toward improving how Avocet and its clients and suppliers can work together to learn how to improve the supply chain, as Avocet shares information on the ongoing maintenance needs of particular aircraft. He figures Avocet will earn back the cost of deploying the Pentagon 2000 system just through the savings in shipping costs, as the system helps Avocet better plan in-stock inventory and avoid having to pay premium prices for expedited shipments of crucial parts needed immediately.

Just as important is the savings of time, he adds.

“Our purchasing managers have many things to do,” Gray says. Instead of spending as much time as they had in the past finding and ordering the right parts or tools, they can better plan ahead. For example, they have more time to manage such matters as scheduling calibration of a torque wrench used to check landing gear.

Logistics and incentives

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Other firms like Crane Worldwide Logistics are using digital technology and data systems to help companies manage the shipment and warehousing of MRO inventory. Crane, for example, provides a “C-View” portal at Craneww.com and mobile apps that clients use to track shipments via air, land or sea from the time they place a purchase order until it arrives in hand, says Stewart Wright, aerospace business development manager.

Crane has been building out its digital operations to provide more information that lets shippers view information on delivery performance and disruptions. “Companies are paying more for freight via air, so they need information before they even think to look for it,” says Nancy Matthews, vice president of Crane’s operations for life sciences and aerospace. She adds that Crane is expanding its digital capabilities across the automotive, life sciences and oil-and-gas industries as well as aerospace.

At the MRO Americas conference, government agencies were also active in touting their role in promoting digital operations among MRO aerospace operations. Oklahoma’s Department of Commerce, for example, was there to show how it works with companies like Lufthansa Technik Component Services, an MRO services organization that offers a “manage/m” web-based suite of commercial aircraft management software. LTCS recently completed an expansion of its maintenance, repair and overhaul services at its Tulsa, Okla., U.S. headquarters and Repair Center. LTCS is part of Germany-based Lufthansa Technik AG.

Vince Howie, director of Aerospace & Defense at the commerce department—noting that Oklahoma City is home to the U.S. military’s largest MRO aerospace center at Tinker Air Force Base, and Tulsa the home of the largest U.S. commercial MRO aviation center, operated by American Airlines—says Oklahoma is offering multiple ways of assisting MRO organizations to set up and expand operations that work with digital supply chains to better manage maintenance and parts ordering.

For airlines and MRO services operating in the Asia-Pacific region, economic development officials for Thailand reached out to B2BecNews to promote the country’s Board of Investment Unit for Industrial Linkage, or BUILD. Salil Wisalswadi, an executive director at the Board of Investment, said Thailand is generating contacts between international MRO aerospace suppliers and international airlines through the ASIDnet.org, a commerce portal hosted by the Association of South East Asian Nations, and by accepting requests for product sources through the email address sourcing@boi.go.th. Meantime, Thailand is seeking to attract new MRO operations with new economic incentives and infrastructure, including a new MRO Hub at U-Tapao International Airport, a joint civil-military facility in Rayong Province.

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