Supply Chain Technology and Airline MRO: Why Now and How

Supply chain solutions aren’t accruing many frequent flyer miles. While airlines are interested in upgrading their IT systems, only two out of five prioritize supply chain execution (2016 Aviation Week and IATA Survey). This is because the unique demands of airline maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) shadow supply chain solutions’ benefits. From inspectors, to parts control, to distribution center and warehouse managers, a strict system of checks is in place to guarantee every part is correct and up to par to keep planes in flight. The technology to streamline this process wasn’t available until after airlines grew into large enterprises. By this point, implementing supply chain solutions seemed too daunting, with the risk of downtime and added complexity to an already complicated operation.

It’s time to take supply chain solutions off the standby list. Today’s technologies are designed to simplify and raise the quality of work for staff, while assuring no interruptions to the workflow.

Why It’s Boarding Time for Supply Chain Solutions

Integrating supply chain execution solutions, specifically a warehouse management system (WMS), improves processes and employee experiences. Here’s how:

No more paper: At each step of the chain of custody – the terminal, the warehouse(s), the aircraft on the ground (AOG), and everything in between – each worker records which parts are included, the vendor, how it was handled, when, by whom and beyond. A WMS digitizes this process, enabling workers to record information faster and accurately while providing a single repository of all data.

Decreased maintenance cycle times: Each day a plane is out of service is money out of pocket. Manual processes take as long as 30 days. A WMS marginalizes this. As discussed, eliminating paperwork expedites the workflow. This is particularly true for receiving and inspection. All details on what to inspect, and how, are available at staff’s fingertips via computer or mobile device. A WMS also prevents staff from moving forward in the process until they properly complete each step of the inspection.

Increased visibility: Parts pass through a myriad of hands and locations. Automating the process, the WMS interfaces to the airline’s FLIFO and the airport’s baggage control systems assures workers always know a part’s whereabouts just by looking at the WMS. This could be the gate of an arriving aircraft, the AOG desk, or one of the distribution centers. Transit time of parts drastically decreases.

Compliance: Regulations for airline MRO are increasing rapidly and constantly changing. Due to this, paper-based systems are outdated quickly. Additionally, paperwork is easily lost as parts pass through the chain of custody. A WMS automatically updates to the latest regulations, assuring airlines always meet compliance. Furthermore, image capturing enables staff to upload and reprint any documentation through the WMS.

Hands and eye free: Voice technology simplifies MRO logistics further. Inspection is one example. Setting specific voice commands and prompts assures all steps are followed in order of the maintenance process and done consistently by all parties. Also, the need to juggle and keep track of paperwork is abolished as the data goes directly into the WMS. This decreases the chance of human error and increases productivity.

Real-time updates: MRO professionals depend on visual or sound-based queues to know the status of an order. This is as informal as the sound of a printer or someone coming to tell them. A WMS sends electronic notifications to workers’ mobile devices. Staff instantly knows when orders come in, are picked, shipped, and received.

Reduced investments for inventory on hand: A WMS manages the parts requirements across all airports and stations, making sure the inventory is always available at the right location to meet the maintenance schedule. This decreases the number of parts on hand at each station, simplifies inventory management, and decreases the need to fly in parts from other airports outside of AOG situations.

Choosing Your Itinerary: Planning the Roll Out of Your WMS

Supply chain solutions can be implemented in a controlled fashion, in phases, based on the priorities of the airline. For example, one airline may prioritize receiving, another inspection, a third picking. Furthermore, today’s technologies integrate with legacy processes and tools. This limits the risk of any disruption to the workflow.

When evaluating a WMS, look for features that meet today’s priorities, along with the adaptability to achieve future goals. Consider the following:

  • A base solution capable of managing item attributes such as long serial numbers, lot numbers, item numbers, and expiration dates.
  • Support for image capture and optical character recognition (OCR) technology to streamline part documentation from receiving to picking to shipping or direct delivery to a mechanic. An example is electronic capture and production of the FAA 8130 form.
  • Support of both consumer and rugged handheld devices to fit workers’ preferences.
  • Voice enablement for hands and eye-free work.
  • Inbound features that include pre-receiving of parcel and less than truckload (LTL), receiving, and quality control inspection integrated with the airlines general maintenance manuals.
  • Ability to integrate with conveyer and automated storage and retrieval systems.
  • Robust cross-docking functionality.
  • Kitting and un-kitting features.
  • Capability to interface with airlines’ FLIFO and airport baggage systems.
  • Integration with parcel manifesting and hazmat systems
  • Delivery to work centers with proof of receipt

The time is now for supply chain technology and airline MRO. With the right features in tow, a WMS can avoid the turbulence MRO staff experience on the job each day, bringing the workflow to heights never thought possible before.

Bill Ryan is senior vice president of operations at HighJump. He is responsible for the management, delivery and support of HighJump’s Supply Chain Execution solutions.  Ryan’s previous roles in professional services have allowed him to work with airlines, airplane manufacturers, sub-component suppliers and many other points of influence and impact within global supply chains.

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