The aviation industry has come under fire for flaws in its quality system. Most notably, the 737 Max disasters, but also many other occurrences including Nippon Cargo Airlines grounding of its entire fleet for “inconsistencies in maintenance records” (Japan Times, June 17th, 2018) and in 2019 the FAA threatened to ground 38 Southwest Airlines planes over “maintenance concerns stemming from a lack of safety and repair documentation” (CNBC, November 12th, 2019). These occurrences put on display weak points in the maintenance record keeping system. Aerospace parts have been meticulously designed, precision manufactured, and vigorously tested before being introduced into the supply chain. Maintenance manuals with instructions on how to care for and repair parts have been carefully written, reviewed, and disciplined procedures were developed to ensure continued safe operation of all parts. The entire quality system seems to cover everything to ensure safe reliable operation. So why do we still find failures, undetected issues, and inconsistencies with records? One reason is the antiquated maintenance records and their tracking process.
The FAA, EASA, other regulatory bodies have set guidelines on proper record keeping and tracking, they even allow for electronic processing. However, in practice, when maintenance is performed, parts are repaired, utilized, bought, or sold, their records get lost in translation. During these events, records are often shared between parties manually via paper and/or scanned images of the paper version. According to Aviation Week “paper accounts for about 90% of all commercial airliner maintenance records globally” (Aviation Week, September 9th, 2016)
To ensure continued safety, certain vital parts have life limits. These types of parts are referred to as life limited parts (LLPs). To verify their airworthiness, their utilization and maintenance provenance must be confirmed. This process is called Back-to-Birth (BtB) trace. All LLPs need to comply. How does the industry accomplish BtB, given that records are transferred via paper? Manually. This manual process often takes weeks to ensure compliance for a complex system of LLPs like an engine or a landing gear (both of which are mission critical to the aircraft).
To further complicate the issue, there is no widely accepted standard practice of what defines acceptable BtB trace. This increases the confusion amongst all parties and lessens the quality of the entire supply chain. Various industry organizations have identified this issue and have begun developing guidelines. The InternationalAir Transport Association’s(IATA) Aircraft Leasing Technical Group (ALTG) has recently written a draft guideline to address this issue. The SAE International A-5 Aerospace Landing Gear Systems Committee has also drafted an Aerospace Recommended Practice (ARP) to specifically address record keeping for LLPs on landing systems. It will be important to harmonize all the separate industry bodies efforts to ensure widespread adoption and acceptance.
However, just having an accepted BtB definition does not fully solve the records provenance issue. The process is still manual. This manual process introduces human error into the system which cannot be avoided. Many organizations employ teams of people to review the records of their parts. A leading European Maintenance Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) organization has +20 employees and contractors reviewing the records for BtB before delivering a final product. They have a well-documented process and system in place; however human errors are still found in the paperwork. There are hundreds of pages of documentation, containing hundreds of part numbers, serial numbers, cycle accumulation information, and other critical data points. It is impossible, no matter how well designed a review process, to eliminate human error. It is this manual process that software company ProvenAir Technologies has set out to solve, by designing the worlds first automated, cloud based, and dynamic BtB trace engine.
ProvenAir Technologies introduced their dynamic BtB trace engine system in 2020. It seeks to eliminate human error in the records provence process, automate redundant work, reduce the time required to review, and improve the quality of the entire records system. ProvenAir ingests any format of paperwork, digitizes the information, and leverages artificial intelligence to highlight exceptions in the full provenance of a parts life history. It was also designed for the next generation of records. Organizations are beginning their transition to digital platforms. ProvenAir will seamlessly integrate with these new digital platforms to further improve the overall quality of the aviation supply chain.
The industry is taking steps to keep aviation safe. It is encouraging to watch the continued effort of organizations like IATA, SAE, and ProvenAir strive to improve quality by creating new solutions and leveraging innovative technology. 2020 was a difficult year for all of us, but the future is looking bright. Here is to 2021 and the digital evolution of aviation.