Aircraft technicians these days are as likely to use a laptop as a printed manual and logbook, and to turn to the Internet for the latest job-status reports and technical information.
Engineers from the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) are assisting them, using current computer and database technology to help military aircraft maintainers get their work done more efficiently. A team from GTRI's Electro-Optical Systems Laboratory (EOSL) has been developing and improving maintenance software for the U.S. Navy since 2000.
Called the Maintainer's Electronic Performance Support System (MEPSS
"The idea is to give maintainers all the information tools and decision-making capabilities that they need," said Gisele Bennett, director of EOSL and principal investigator for the project. "From a simplified standpoint, you can almost look at it as an information portal, where you're collecting and disseminating information to the maintainers."
MEPSS is typically installed on a laptop computer. Technicians can check parts lists, consult manuals, and add information about their work as they go.
The system can be updated in a variety of ways -- through a squadron LAN, a standalone server, CD-ROMs, USB devices, or the World Wide Web. A Web-enabled system gives maintainers access to up-to-the-minute technical and parts information, and helps them both access and share work-related information.
Whatever the connectivity approaches used, the software performs a needed centralizing function, Bennett says. For example, by reviewing software reports maintainers can detect trends involving, say, troublesome parts that need multiple replacements. Or they can pinpoint repair techniques that need improvement.
And maintainers can conveniently brief themselves on an aircraft's maintenance history, right down to work done recently by a previous shift that is not on site to answer questions.
MEPSS uses MS Internet Explorer as the delivery mechanism for the information that is extracted from a database. The system also has the ability to post announcements, allowing effective dissemination of critical issues and information among an entire maintenance community.
"The maintainer can look up all kinds of information about how to repair a system, document what they did, document any problems, and add any helpful hints that they need to share," Bennett said. "It's a collaborative tool that lets them share information with other maintainers and between squadrons."
Keesah Hall, an EOSL research scientist, says that in constructing MEPSS, researchers spent considerable time at Naval air bases watching how maintainers performed their work. That kind of first-hand observation gave the research team insight into what maintainers needed.
"We made sure they were integral in the design process," she said. "It was designed for them specifically, to help them with the tasks that they complete every day."
When maintainers are working overseas in the field, they find that electronically controlling maintenance records is an advantage. That's because high winds, rain, sand and other environmental hazards will destroy paper publications.
"The paper can go flying everywhere, so having everything on a portable computer is helpful for them," Hall said.
By contrast, the special hardened laptop computers used by maintainers shrug off most environmental effects.
MEPSS software won the 2001 Gold Award for Excellence in E-Learning in the Performance Centered Design Category. This awards program is sponsored by brandon-hall.com and Online Learning Magazine.
The maintenance program is written in the Java programming language and integrated with an Oracle database. Java is "platform-independent," which means that Java-based programs are easy to move between various computer types such as the IBM-PC / Microsoft Windows computers, Apple Macintosh systems, or Unix-based and Linux-based computers.
The MEPSS system has several different components including:
Hall recalls that the aircraft maintainers used to carry individual "wheel books," which they used to make paper notes about important points and problems. The problem was, sharing information between the individual wheel books wasn't automatic. Now, she notes, being able to enter such information into a linked computer system makes it much easier to share.
Trouble-shooting tips are among the most important capabilities the system offers, Hall believes. When GTRI researchers interviewed maintainers, they learned that knotty maintenance problems can sometimes take a week or more to solve. Now maintainers can share these hard-won solutions with their coworkers via MEPSS.
"When we were designing the system we asked, 'How can we help them save money and time by documenting these kinds of issues?' " Hall said. "Now the system lets them keep track of things that are not easy to figure out."
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