By By Dale Smith | October 1, 2010
From advanced all-digital cockpits, to more powerful engines, to the use of advanced composite materials, no matter how you look at them, today’s helicopters are marvels of technological advancement. As good as those advancements are, each one places an increasing degree of pressure on those charged with inspecting, troubleshooting and maintaining these amazing machines.
|Animation or instructional video replace some verbiage in maintenance manuals showing the right way to do an inspection or repair. A simple click allows users to see the video demonstration.|
In many cases, that pressure is outstripping the ability of traditional printed and digitized maintenance manuals to provide technicians with the timely information they need to perform sophisticated inspections and repair tasks. But, as you’d expect, while new technology may be creating a problem, even newer technology is providing a solution. In this case it’s in the form of job performance aids (JPAs). But what are they?
Simply put they’re everything you’ve ever wanted in a maintenance manual and more. JPAs replace static three-view drawings and countless paragraphs of instructional text with photos, illustrations, animation or instructional video. Instead of reading about the right way to do an inspection or repair, just tap on the link and see someone demonstrate the correct way to complete the task. “You’ve heard that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, I guess that begs the question of what narrated video and interactive animation is worth?” asked Matt Waters, vice president of products and services for Job Performance Associates, Inc. “I can tell you it’s a lot. With JPAs you have visual and audio tools at your fingertips to help a technician successfully complete a task.” Because the user can manipulate the embedded animation, videos, illustrations or whatever multimedia element they need, Waters continued, “they have control over their learning environment. They are accessing the information at the same time they are doing the actual task.” Need a refresher on how to properly do an inspection or repair? No problem. Just whip out your smart phone or laptop and with a few taps or clicks a video “tutorial” appears on your screen.
“Today’s generation of technician expects this kind of content delivery. Everything they do is condensed into short videos,” Waters said. “It’s important to remember that JPAs are not a replacement for structured training and experience. They’re created for the fastest user—meaning a technician who already understands this stuff, but they just need to make sure they’re doing everything right. It’s like a quick refresher,” he continued. “At the same time it’s very useful for less experienced technicians, since they can manipulate the information at a pace that is comfortable for them.” While the concept of what JPAs are may seem simple, Waters said that a lot of seasoned technical publications folks have a problem grasping the concept. “I know a lot of times I talk about this and the training or tech pubs people get offended. They think we’re trying to replace what they do. That’s wrong. We’re just offering an opportunity to use new digital audio and visual tools the way they were intended to be used,” he explained. “It’s a change in the information distribution paradigm, but it’s necessary to embrace this change to meet the requirements of today’s maintainers.”
Job performance aids “don’t replace traditional training, they just complement it with on-demand refreshers,” Waters said. “They’re a way to show maintenance theory or practice in a real-world setting. There’s no more powerful reinforcement tool than that.”
Waters explained that today’s JPAs are much more than a simple set of data collection methods and digital tools. They are a system of field-proven strategies, processes and production capabilities that have been designed over years of practical application to deliver measurable results through rapid comprehension, retention and repeatable actions. The bottom line is JPAs improve efficiency, consistency and productivity, according to Waters.
“It’s not enough to get the information when you need it,” he said. “It needs to be the right information and in the right form for fast comprehension, retention and use.” Sometimes a photo “is better than an animation or video,” Waters added. “You have to know how to apply these things to their best use. Everything we do is to condense the learning time required to as small a time frame as possible. Give them what they need to know in 30 seconds.”
Waters noted that historically, traditional training methods “rely heavily on memorization of what you are trying to learn and then practicing in an operational environment until you get it right. When it comes to most jobs—especially highly technical ones—organizations can’t afford this kind of inefficiency today.” A good example of how effective JPAs can be at accelerating comprehension and improving efficiency is illustrated in a story Waters shared about an experiment the Navy conducted at one of its depots about eight years ago. A JPA was developed to aid technicians in the repair of an Allison/Rolls Royce T-56 turbine engine gearbox. Two equally skilled technicians were assigned a maintenance task, with one being given only the technical publication, and the other the technical pub and a JPA.
“The technician with the JPA performed the work in half the time, and asked only three questions. Not only did the technician without the JPA take twice as long to do the work, he also asked dozens of questions of the supervisor who was observing the process. Some of the technicians observing this test voiced their opinion that had the supervisor not been there, the technician without the JPA would not have asked as many questions, and would have simply done the work to the best of his understanding.”
The example illustrates “the thousands of questions that are never asked,” Waters said, “and the hundreds of thousands of maintenance actions that are skewed as a result of misinterpretation of the technical instructions.”
One of the big problems with current manuals is that the way they describe some repairs or inspections is not necessarily the way it is best done in the field. Tech writers do the best they can but just don’t have the experience or knowledge to spot inaccuracies. Even when there are changes it can take months, or longer, to get that revised document into the hands of the technician. “When we go in and do a video shoot for a JPA, we team up with an engineer, a technical rep, senior technicians and we go through the process the way it is supposed to be done by the book,” Waters said. “One-hundred percent of the time the tech pub is wrong. Yes, the tech pub says one thing, but it doesn’t work that way. It needs revision. It’s amazing, but put a camera on something and you quickly see that what you are being instructed to do in a number of instances isn’t correct.”
It takes two or three days to shoot the video for a typical JPA, Waters noted, “but at the end of the time we have fixed the problems with the tech pub. Engineers have done a very extensive and intensive validation verification of what the technical publication should say about the task.” With JPAs, “technicians in the field are assured that they are seeing the most current information available,” Waters continued. Speaking of timely updates, that’s one thing that Waters says the typical tech pub person doesn’t understand about JPAs. “Configuration is a big hurdle,” he said. “Companies just aren’t familiar with how it can be done when you involve a number of multimedia segments and move beyond simple text changes. It doesn’t matter if it’s a printed word or a video, if the maintenance process changes you have to change the reference manual.” JPAs are designed in a modular sense so the user can easily change pieces or parts. “It’s a plug-and-play approach,” Waters said. “It’s not really any more difficult than changing printed documents. Instead of changing words, you are changing visual and audio cues. While it might seem that video is more involved than changing a few lines of text, try using text to try and convey a new technique. It can’t easily be done. We can often do changes as fast or faster than regular tech pubs and for less cost.”
Waters pointed out another huge benefit of JPAs—the ability to capture the irreplaceable “tribal knowledge” held by those experienced technicians who’ve seen and done it all.
“We call these mentoring segments. These are what are getting the most attention by companies and technicians alike,” Waters said. “Companies, military and government organizations have never been able to keep the experiential knowledge that resides in the minds of senior techs. When someone retires or quits their knowledge goes out the door with them. It’s especially critical now that the Baby Boomers are retiring.” When he was working with the USCG H-60 repair depot in Elizabeth City, N.J., Waters met a technician named Mike in the glass repair shop. “Mike had been there many years and he had this black notebook full of tips and tricks that he’d learned. You wouldn’t find any of it in the tech manuals—all perfectly correct and they allowed him to do his job a little faster and possibly better.”
As Waters explained it, Mike had one process in particular that allowed him to replace a piece of windshield in 20 minutes by himself. “According to the manual it would take four technicians four hours to do that job. When Mike goes fishing, that knowledge goes with him. There are thousands of those examples in the field.”
Job Performance Associates has been creating JPAs for the U.S. military for seven years, and Waters noted that technicians working on today’s high-performance helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft find the technology particularly beneficial. “The more complex a task and the less frequently it is performed, the greater the benefits of JPAs,” he said. One example was the creation of an animated fuel cell for a Sikorsky H-60 helicopter. “The tech can actually go in a 3D model of the helicopter and see the fuel tank from every angle. They can turn on the fuel flow and fuel dumps. It’s all color-coded. They can get a rapid refresher on how the system works,” Waters added.
The military isn’t the only operator seeing the benefits of JPAs. Sikorsky recently announced the signing of an MOU with Job Performance Associates to develop interactive multimedia products linked directly to Sikorsky’s technical publications. As David Adler, president of Sikorsky Aerospace Services, stated: “With video demonstrations embedded in our technical manuals, our field service representatives will be able to maintain the highest training standards. This technology provides an innovative way to standardize, as well as, reinforce on-the-job training among our facilities worldwide.”
Sikorsky “is the first OEM to get on board,” Waters said. “Others are looking at it but have to evaluate how it fits into their current tech support functions. Sikorsky understands that you need to start introducing technical solutions for these needs today.”
While the many advantages JPAs and their rich multimedia capabilities bring to new technicians are obvious, they can be equally as beneficial to high-timers, especially new-generation helicopters with advanced digital systems. Troubleshooting these can challenge even the most experienced veteran technician. Newer helicopters “are designed to need less maintenance and fewer inspections, so it may be quite a while between when someone receives training and the day they’re faced with doing the task for the first time in the field,” Waters said. “JPAs are perfect for occasional users and for more complex procedures.”
Even some seemingly routine maintenance and repair tasks can benefit from having a JPA in its maintenance manual. “There are complexities to practically every task,” he added. “You can’t appreciate them unless you’ve tried to do it. You’re working with very small tolerances. Technicians are trying to interpret a lot of critical data.”
Take a “standard” engine seal replacement task, for example. “The peri seal goes around the engine on an fighter aircraft,” Waters said. “If you don’t put it in exactly right, subsequent damages may require a center barrel replacement on the engine. That’s a million dollars per aircraft.”
According to Waters, JPAs aren’t inexpensive, but compared to the cost associated with doing a repair task incorrectly, the return on that investment is huge.
“It’s hardly fair to blame mistakes solely on the maintainers, when the manuals often leave too much room for interpretation,” he said. “When I talk to the younger technicians today and show them what’s coming they say, ‘It’s about time.’.”