Digitization as Groundwork for Transformative Maintenance Process Improvement

Automated Process and Inspection Guide (AP&IG)

Though digitization has existed as a business need for over two decades, the wide array of industries that stand to benefit from digitizing routine and/or labor-intensive business processes have been slow to do so. According to the MIT Center for Information Systems Research (CISR), “only 28 percent of established companies have successfully digitized.” This lag creates barriers that hurt companies’ internal bottom line, limiting their capacity and operational efficiency and stymying their efforts to scale up or expand their portfolios. Lack of digitization forces leadership to devote resources and attention to playing catch-up and sustaining historic levels of performance in the face of leaner and more agile competition, resources and attention that could be better spent investing in growth.[1]

Inspection processes in maintenance settings, for instance, are fertile ground for the process improvements facilitated by migration to digital platforms. Traditional inspection remains a largely manual, paper-based process, in which evaluators examine a series of areas on a product, determine whether defects exist, and record their findings manually. It is heavily reliant on the judgment and experience of individual evaluators, making it difficult to scale up inspections and ensure that consistent standards and practices are applied and that data is high-quality. That inspection occurs in disparate settings, frequently without network access, creates obstacles to providing resources to support evaluators and limits the sharing and analysis of the data they collect.

The object of the Automated Process and Inspection Guide (AP&IG) project was to standardize both the inspection data and processes for quality assurance and standardize pre-shop analysis (PSA) evaluation data and processes. In partnership with NCMS’ Commercial Technologies for Maintenance Activities (CTMA) Program, Corpus Christi Army Depot (CCAD) employed Aspire Solutions, Inc. (ASI) commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software application, combined with COTS UMPC (ultra-mobile PC) technology, to guide evaluators through inspections. The result improved accuracy and standardized collection of defect data.[2]



AP&IG reduces inefficient paper records, instead capturing data on mobile devices. With COTS software, the device also becomes an inspection aid, guiding evaluators through a standardized inspection process and reducing the primacy of manual data entry.

Manual data entry is a major impediment to root-cause analysis. In the absence of a system for consistently identifying and logging common defects, different evaluators describe the same defects using widely divergent language, forcing analysts to closely review individual records lest they mis-categorize defect data or miss patterns and similarities during analysis. Even after paper records of individual inspections are transcribed into a database, analysts must still parse and clean manually entered data to ensure it is consistent in structure, terminology, and level of specificity. For instance, one common issue that impedes automated text analysis is word order (e.g., “latch broken” versus “broken latch”). Another is the use of unclear or inconsistent terminology to describe the same types of defects (e.g., “deformed,” “bent,” “damaged,” “inoperable,” “broken”).

Digitizing processes allows businesses to automate data collection about service usage and productivity and track indicators of their own performance. Systems like AP&IG allow maintenance operations to monitor the incidence of specific types of defects across various components, systems, and platforms and to reallocate resources and better prepare personnel based on that knowledge. Furthermore, abandoning paperwork in favor of an electronic interface generates a more robust audit trail, one that is less susceptible to loss of documentation and that generates records instantaneously.

According to McKinsey, a management consulting firm, digitization permits and is in turn reinforced by a transformation of its adopters’ business processes. When a business successfully goes digital, it can not only make incremental improvements to current business practices using cloud services and automation but leverage these technologies to implement new efficiencies and services that were not possible before. To maximize these benefits, companies “reinvent the entire business process, including cutting the number of steps required, reducing the number of documents, [and] developing automated decision making.” Doing so reduces the number of middlemen, approval-chain bottlenecks, and opportunities for human error. The resulting benefits included cost reductions of up to 90 percent when information-intensive business processes are digitized, along with improved turnaround.[3]



The AP&IG project consisted of two pilot projects involving PSA evaluations of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) Sikorsky MH-60G/HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter, an Air Force variant on the Black Hawk. While they were conducted in similar environments, the two operations differed markedly in how information was collected and used, demonstrating the technology’s configurability and flexibility.

The first CCAD PSA pilot focused on the Pave Hawk structural evaluation, which occurs after a newly arrived helicopter had been disassembled (after the removal of major assemblies, such as engines, doors, access panels, avionics, fuel cells, etc.) but before it has been inducted into production. It had six key goals: accelerating the rate at which trainee evaluators acquired experience, eliminating variability of evaluations across personnel, eliminating non-standard evaluation write-ups, reducing research time, providing mid-evaluation access to technical reference data, and capturing “head knowledge”—the informal, unrecorded expertise acquired by experienced evaluators that would otherwise constantly be lost due to personnel turnover.

The second CCAD Quality Assurance Inspection pilot focused on the USAF Pave Hawk aircraft from the time initial repairs begin to its initial flight test. These inspections involve 83 processes and span the entire aircraft. In addition to a defined checklist, quality assurance inspection was unique in that it needed to include a customizable, generic, non-pre-scripted process, which could be configured to allow for unplanned, one-off inspections oftentimes unique to specific aircraft. Along with eliminating variability of evaluations, eliminating non-standard write-ups, and providing mid-evaluation access to technical reference data, goals it shared with the PSA pilot, the Quality Assurance Inspection pilot had the key goals of reducing evaluator desk time, minimizing the need for system-specific experience, and eliminating the need for extensive data mining.

Both pilots produced strong results, with the PSA pilot decreasing induction time and yielding substantial savings and the Quality Assurance Inspection pilot’s non-pre-scripted process providing an excellent demonstration of the software’s flexibility.


Project Partners

  • U.S. Army – Corpus Christi Army Depot (CCAD)
  • U.S. Air Force – Tinker Air Force Base (AFB)
  • U.S. Army – Red River Army Depot
  • Aspire Solutions, Inc. (ASI)
  • National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS)

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[1] Jeanne Ross, “Don’t Confuse Digital with Digitization,” MIT Sloan Management Review (blog), n.d., https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/dont-confuse-digital-with-digitization/.

[2] “Case Studies: Army,” Aspire Solutions, n.d., http://aspiresolns.com/case-studies/army/.

[3] Shahar Markovitch and Paul Willmott, “Accelerating the Digitization of Business Processes,” McKinsey & Company, May 2014, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/accelerating-the-digitization-of-business-processes.