Friday, August 1, 2008
Tracking Down Maintenance Tracking Software
It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to find a good maintenance tracking software, just some good research. Here we have done the sleuthing for you and have looked at a variety of levels of software ranging from airline-worthy to small shop ready to software designed for individual maintenance departments.
Maintenance tracking software programs are as varied as the industry they serve. Products run from shrink-wrapped packages loaded onto a single personal computer, to Web-based services which process transactions remotely, to enterprise software that runs on an organization’s internal networks. There is something for everyone in commercial and corporate aviation, and one’s choices will depend on the size and experience of the maintenance department, the number and type of aircraft in the fleet it services, the level of support in requires, and the price it can afford.
At the high end, the airlines use industrial-strength maintenance tracking software they have evolved over the decades or products from vendors such as TRAX Corp. or Mxi Technologies. These typically have multiple, interconnected modules besides tracking — such as materials management, workflow and reporting — which can be bought piece by piece or as a bundled package. According to Chris Reed, TRAX managing director, TRAX and Mxi offer similar products: "They cover fewer functional areas but go deeper in some of them," he claims. "We [TRAX] cover every function IT [information technology] requires," he asserts. TRAX’s software is connected to an airline’s corporate finance system, so that TRAX can share data such as the verification of invoices; it is connected to flights operations software so that updates of flight schedules and information on aircraft in and out of service can be communicated back and forth. TRAX sells its functions as a bundle, not one by one. The software runs on an Oracle database.
Mxi, on the other hand, lets customers choose which functions to pay for. Its Maintenix software is comparable to an enterprise resource management program (ERP) in its breadth and power, says CEO Doug Brouse, although the program focuses on maintenance, rather than trying to fill all an airline’s IT needs. Customers include Qantas, Air Canada, KLM/AirFrance and China Airlines, as well as NetJets. Like TRAX, Mxi stresses the compatibility of its modules with other software. The company has "invested heavily in making [the software] integratable," Brouse says. "In our view maintenance really can’t be an island. You really need to have your maintenance tied into all your other information systems."
Mxi started out with the maintenance engineering module, the heart of its system, and then built out to line maintenance, shop maintenance, heavy maintenance, material management and other segments. Because the pieces are internally integrated, people working in the supply area can anticipate the demand for a part and have it available when it is needed. The system automates the routine work of assigning tasks to maintenance facilities, Brouse says, so that time can be focused on exception management, fixing problems such as missing parts or insufficient capacity.
The Mxi system models components in its database and associates maintenance tasks against them. Basically, after the maintenance program and the parts are entered into the database, wherever the parts go, the maintenance program follows, flagging any task that may be overdue.
TRAX customers buy the complete product with all of its 23 modules, including an engineering segment for maintenance tracking, which basically generates job cards and monitors all of the regulatory requirements.
Almost 80 airlines use the TRAX software, Reed says, and about 40 percent of the company’s business is in the United States, with carriers such as United. More than 2,600 airplanes, most of them jets, are supported. Lufthansa Technik, the largest TRAX user, has 3,000 technicians on TRAX at its maintenance base in the Philippines. The client/server software, which can cost a big airline "several million" dollars, is supported for a fee that ranges from 18 percent to 21 percent of the purchase cost, Reed says. It can take from six months to a year and a half to set up the program, depending on the size of the airline, a timescale similar to Mxi’s. Although the software has always been Web-enabled, it is not yet Web-based. But a Web-based version, now in beta test, is expected soon.
Mxi’s software is already Web-based, says Brouse, and features a role-based browser. So when a worker logs on, in the quality assurance (QA), maintenance technician or the maintenance planner role, for example, the software provides an appropriate list of tasks to do that day. Most customers host the software internally.
Maintenance tracking software is a good idea for even the most cost-conscious carrier, TRAX maintains. "To cut costs, you have to know where you’re spending the money," Reed says. One of the airlines’ biggest costs, he asserts, is maintaining older applications. One customer, who was spending $1 million a year in this way, replaced its old solution — software and hardware — with TRAX for less than that, he says. Lufthansa Technik’s Philippine facility cut IT costs by 30 percent, when it went from 17 different tracking systems to his company’s product, he adds.
Mxi touts its money-saving track record as well. Executive Jet Management, a company owned by NetJets, achieved a 63 percent productivity increase in its fleet management group via the software, Brouse says. The U.S. Navy, which uses Mxi software to determine when parts on the F/A-18’s F414 engines need to be changed — a process that involves tracking more than 1,400 parameters — has obtained 30 percent more usable life out of engine components, he says. Similarly, Naval Flight Training Canada, which uses the software for line maintenance in a completely wireless environment, has registered a 7 percent increase in aircraft availability and has reduced turn times to 12 minutes, Brouse asserts.
TRAX’s Windows-based software also provides role-based logons, so that a maintenance planner, purchaser and engineer will see different data and different views. The maintenance engineer, for example, will open a page that depicts urgent problems or changes to procedures. At the click of a mouse, he can view the fleet, with the aircraft color-coded according to status.
TRAX claims to be the only maintenance tracking software vendor thus far to have offered an implementation of the ATA Chapter 11 electronic format for reliability data that has been tested with all the manufacturers. The standard is intended to speed the flow of reliability information from the manufacturers to the airlines. TRAX also provides digital signature capability and biometric signoffs based on fingerprints. The biometric can be used to log into applications, ask for spare parts, and to issue and sign job cards, Reed says. It actually can reduce IT costs, since, unlike a password, it can’t be changed. One customer saved two full-time jobs by using the biometric technology, applying the IT expertise elsewhere in the enterprise.
Corporate maintenance departments can choose from a range of software options and business models. The giant in this market is CAMP Systems, which, along with competitors such as Avtrak, employs a subscription-based business model. Users log into a browser interface and their transactions are processed — over the Internet — at the vendor’s or an outsourced data center.
Now in its 40th year of operation, CAMP services more than 5,800 airplanes, according to CEO Ken Gray. The company’s maintenance tracking service, he says, is the factory-endorsed program for Dassault aircraft; Bombardier Challengers, LearJets and Global Express aircraft; Hawker Beechcraft Hawkers, King Airs, BJ400s and H4000s; and Pilatus and Piaggio aircraft. Fractional operators such as Flight Options and Exojet also use CAMP’s product. Bombardier, Dassault and Hawker Beechcraft models come with a year of CAMP free, and the company enjoys a 99 percent renewal rate, he says.
"The reason we are the endorsed company is because the people at the OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] want quality data flowing back to them," Gray says. CAMP works very closely with the OEMs to provide aggregated data for performance and reliability analysis. CAMP can tell them, for example, what the top 10 unscheduled removals are on a certain model of aircraft, or that a landing gear that is supposed to be good for 1,000 or more cycles is only lasting 800 cycles.
CAMP’s solution supports about 140 different makes and models. These range from a Pilatus to a BBJ in size, but 70 percent of the customers are single aircraft operators. About 20 percent of the fleet is foreign-operated. The company owns its own data center and converted from a mainframe to a Web-based system in 2001.
Subscriptions range from $3,000 to $12,000 per aircraft per year, averaging about $7,000, Gray says. CAMP subscriptions are typically 20 percent to 25 percent higher than Avtrak’s, he adds. But people buy maintenance tracking based on quality rather than price, he maintains. Moreover, "Whatever you spend on maintenance tracking is insignificant, compared to either doing maintenance you don’t need to do or missing maintenance that you do need to do." Gray asserts that the average business aircraft consumes around $300,000 in maintenance per year. You don’t spend that kind of money, "if you’re not willing to spend $7,000 to $8,000 to make sure you’re doing the right stuff." Maintenance tracking is a very small item in the budget of a corporate aircraft, he asserts. But if you’re out of compliance, you can’t fly.
Competitor Avtrak provides Web-based services similar to CAMP’s, but there are differences. Avtrak offers tiered services, so that a maintenance department can choose a solution involving less analyst support. The typical customer is a corporate flight department with five to 10 airplanes, according to Dennis Steinbeck, vice president of sales and marketing.
Like CAMP, Avtrak supports about 140 makes and models. "We subscribe to the technical publications and we keep the master data set," ranging from the type certificate to service bulletins and airworthiness directives, Steinbeck says. The data also includes the life of components and scheduled inspection programs. So, when an aircraft manufacturer revises its maintenance program, Avtrak makes the change available to its customers. The system is "approved or accepted by almost all of the majors," he says. Avtrak also shares data with the OEMs for their reliability analysis and customer support, and in return receives the technical publications necessary to keep its databases current.
Avtrak’s technical specialists also can provide "quality oversight," such as checking logbook entries to make sure they properly document the work that was done. Mistakes range from mistyping a serial number to incorrectly signing off on work. Not all customers, however, need this additional oversight, Steinbeck says. For the more self-sufficient Avtrak provides a "lite" level of service, which involves such things as updating the maintenance program information as it is revised by the manufacturer. With the "standard" level of service, a customer gets a particular analyst assigned to an aircraft. The analyst helps the customer doing an update in the field or updates the aircraft’s data from information faxed in by the customer.
Although Avtrak did not reveal its pricing, its Web site states that this is "often 30+ percent less than competing systems." Its tiered service model and volume discounts, moreover, allow customers to reap additional savings. Avantair Inc., a Florida-based fractional provider that uses the lite level of service, says it pays an annual enrollment fee of just $1,200 per aircraft. The company manages a fleet of 49 Piaggio Avanti P.180 aircraft and its 82-person-strong maintenance operation performs its own QA and inputs its own data.
Much bigger than Avtrak, CAMP employs 287 people and offers an aircraft-to-analyst ratio of 48 to one, Gray says. He describes CAMP as a "full-service" business, offering a single level of service. "The market prefers a fair price for premium service," he states. "Maintenance tracking isn’t software," he asserts. "Software is maybe 20 percent of the equation...maintenance tracking is the management of templates, publications, the management of the QC [quality control] process." QC, he explains, is ensuring that the data used to create the maintenance tracking information is correct.
A subscription for CAMP’s maintenance tracking service includes electronic logbook and work center functions. The work center software helps a maintenance department to assemble tasks in a logical work path. CAMP also provides document storage and retention. So, when somebody signs off on the work, the logbook entry can be faxed to CAMP at a toll-free number, where it is electronically stored and archived. Customers can input their own data, but most prefer to let CAMP do it because it’s entered and checked in 24 to 48 hours.
Analysts can look at how many hours a customer flies and supply a due list, with items coming up for inspection or work. The CAMP system provides the current pages of the aircraft manual to do the work, with illustrations and text. Once CAMP receives the signoff for the work, its analysts examine the paperwork to ensure, for example, that allowable parts were used.
Customer personnel can specify what they want to see on the interface when they log on. A fleet manager, for example, would probably use what CAMP calls the "heads-up display," which includes red, yellow and green lights to indicate overdue items, due items, and good-to-go, respectively. A King Air operator with one aircraft, however, might use the "express interface," which can display a downloadable due list.
Avtrak claims to have an easier-to-use, cleaner interface than CAMP’s because Avtrak’s was designed from the start to be Web-based. Avtrak says its system is used to track between 3,500 and 4,000 airplanes. Some 1,562 of the aircraft, however, are supported by Gulfstream, which licenses Avtrak’s technology and infrastructure to power the OEM’s CMP.net solution. This group of aircraft, which Gulfstream says constitutes approximately 97 percent of the manufacturer’s in-service fleet, is served by about 40 Gulfstream employees, according to Steinbeck. Among Avtrak’s direct customers are Sentient, a large charter operator, Wal-Mart and fractional provider, Avantair.
Other differences between Avtrak and CAMP are that Avtrak outsources data processing and develops its software in partnership with another company, which devotes six employees to the task. Avtrak, itself, employs about 40 people, some 30 of whom are A&Ps and many of whom have inspection authorization, Steinbeck says.
Avtrak follows 750 to 1,000 line items per aircraft. Maintenance inspection programs are quite involved, he stresses. "It’s not like changing the oil in your engine every 3,000 hours." Items can be tracked by hours, calendar or landings/cycles. Some inspections may be either/or — every 300 hours or 12 months, whichever comes first. Others may have a tolerance or window around them. And how you calculate the next due time is not always straightforward. While maintenance tracking is the software’s core function, work order and inventory control functions are available as options.
The enrollment process is straightforward. When Avtrak gets an in-service aircraft with, for example, 5,000 hours, the company prefers to enter the data from the aircraft’s physical logbook, Steinbeck says. But a customer can send Avtrak a status report from another maintenance tracking system and have Avtrak enter this detailed listing of inspections.
When a customer logs on, the first screen is a list of the airplanes in the customer’s fleet. This "dashboard," summary view is color-coded — green, yellow, red — to indicate the compliance status of each aircraft. From there the user can drill down into the system to find out, for example, what is causing a red light. The customer can also enable email alerts and can log in from Blackberries or other PDAs.
Both Aircraft Technical Publishers (ATP) and Conklin & de Decker offer shrink-wrapped maintenance tracking software. ATP’s Microsoft-based product, Maintenance Director, which stores aircraft data in a Sybase database, also can be networked. ATP’s software is not Web-based and can run on as low as an Intel 386 with 512 Mbytes of memory.
ATP’s basic package, Maintenance Director Planner, costs $1,500 in a stand-alone configuration. It keeps track of the last work that was done, so that the user can forecast what needs to be done next. The midlevel version of the software, Maintenance Director E-Log, and the high-end Maintenance Director Enterprise cost $3,500 and $4,500, respectively, in the standalone mode. Regardless of the version used, the price rises by $2,500 for each additional increment of five users. The E-Log version features an electronic logbook that "remembers all you’ve done," says product specialist Bob Jones. The Enterprise version adds more queries and tools, as well as reporting options.
ATP’s largest customer by fleet size is the Columbian Air Force, with about 300 planes, Jones says. But the typical customer is a corporate operator with two or more aircraft. Most customer aircraft are fixed-wing, either turboprops or jets, ranging from Lears and Falcons to King Airs and Twin Commanders. ATP has templates for about 40 models of aircraft.
The ATP system basically tracks the requirements against a piece of equipment. The software is so flexible that some customers have used it to tracking aircraft tugs, torque wrenches, and even employee training records. The program also offers more depth in parts tracking than competitors, Jones asserts. One aircraft manufacturer uses ATP to track components on different configurations of test bed aircraft, he says.
Conklin & de Decker’s MxManager software is a solution that is inclusive enough to service the "smaller folks and orphans out there in the world," as well as the more conventional business aircraft, according to senior analyst H.B. Wise. This includes the underserved helicopter market and "aircraft that the manufacturer is not so interested in tracking anymore because maybe the numbers aren’t there." Users range from maintenance departments with two people to those with double shifts of 20 people.
The software can be installed on a single computer or a network and is designed to be flexible in tracking components, Wise says. "You don’t have to try to shoehorn a helicopter into fixed-wing software by calling your engine cycles landings, or something like that." The company has templates for about 120 makes and models. "We try to give users as much control as possible over what their aircraft look like and how they are being tracked," he says.
The software includes three modules, covering maintenance tracking, inventory and work orders. Users can buy all three segments together, or inventory and work order together, or tracking only, Wise says. The complete package costs $8,500 and there is a $2,000/year service fee, which includes twice yearly software updates. For a small fee, Conklin & de Decker people will input aircraft data for a customer, but it’s the customer’s responsibility to make sure it’s all correct.
The company has about 50 MxManager customers with 300 to 350 aircraft, divided "pretty evenly" between fixed-wing, mixed fleets and rotary-wing fleets. In total numbers of aircraft, one-half to two-thirds are rotary-wing. Most of the customers have at least two aircraft and around half of them are state or local agencies. Conklin & de Decker even has one federal customer, the U.S. Marshals Service. Among the rotary-wing users are tour operators, corporate operators, fire departments, police agencies and sheriffs departments. Not all of the aircraft are of the older or underserved variety. Airsprint, a fractional in Canada, operates a fleet of about 20 newer aircraft. Conklin & de Decker’s customers are located as far away as Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, Canada and Mexico.
The software is easy to use, and Wise says he has trained people just out of high school with no computer experience. The complete maintenance tracking package can generate about 100 reports, derived from about 25 base reports. A user can create a report on every component on every aircraft, for example, or an "alerted items report" with every bulletin, maintenance item or component on an aircraft or multiple aircraft within the alert parameters.
Aircraft Technical Publishers (ATP)
Conklin & de Decker