This post originally appeared in the Aircraft IT MRO eJournal May/June 2016 issue.
At the recent Aircraft Commerce Airline & Aerospace MRO & Operations IT Conference in Miami, it seemed that paperless maintenance was definitely flavor of the month. As well as the usual vendor presentations on the subject there was a satisfying number of real-life case studies from the likes of Embraer Aircraft Maintenance Services, Atlas Air and others where they were sharing lessons they had learned along the path to a paperless environment. In the six years that I’ve been presenting in Miami, this has been the most encouraged I have been to learn of airlines and MROs adopting twenty-first century solutions to their information management problems. But, it’s also clear that the work isn’t quite done yet.
The presenter from Atlas Air, Andy Genao, hit the nail on the head and summed up several years of personal frustration when he said:
“PDF isn’t paperless. It’s just postponing the printing…”
What I took him to mean by this is that it’s all very well getting rid of paper from one stage of a maintenance lifecycle, if you’re still rendering forms and worksheets into PDF documents that are formatted for the printed page you’re only pushing the creation of paper further downstream.
It brings a tear to my eye every time I see an awesome looking piece of software, with a beautiful user interface and a user-centric, responsive design that works on multiple platforms and then there’s a dirty great ‘printer’ icon or an ‘export to Excel’ function lurking in the shadows. The application designer has almost certainly gone to great lengths to design an application that helps wean the user away from the paper world. I would even hazard a guess that it was always their intention to keep the process 100% paperless, but at some point a subject matter expert has stated that there needs to be a way to dump the resulting content to paper or to an .xls file to allow the user to ‘knife and fork’ the data.
I can picture the internal arguments with product managers and account managers. I can imagine the desire to ‘just say no’. But at some point, somebody with sufficient seniority cracks and the instruction comes to add a printer to the application icon set and the argument is lost for yet another generation of MRO IT users. At some point, as technologists we’re going to stop doing that… putting up barriers that prevent us from moving totally towards paperless maintenance. But that will be either when hell freezes over, or as Andy Genao prophesized,
“… when we’ve used up all the paper in the world.”
I’m reminded of the joke about archeologists who turn up at the site of what once was an airport, hundreds of years into the future. They dig down to what was once the site of an aircraft maintenance facility and discover the evidence of thousands of sheets of paper. Their only rational conclusion would be that they had discovered the site of an ancient paper factory. The factory was so prolific in their production of paper that they had to build huge hangars to store it all and that they needed to build a runway to allow the aircraft needed to ship it to take off and land at the factory doors… or at least that’s how I see IT.