The MRO sector, much like the rest of the aviation industry, focuses its energy on rationalizing costs. As a consequence of the ongoing crisis, experts already point to another issue that the industry might be facing soon — a shortage of skilled technicians.

Since 2000, Fingermind has offered its customers digitization solutions for aeronautical maintenance. Today, Christophe Remy, the CEO of the Paris-based company, trusts his software will find a place in the post-COVID strategy of airlines to leave behind what he calls “the Middle Ages” of MRO.

Could you start by telling us more about your company? 

Fingermind develops MRO Suite, a software solution for aviation maintenance, which allows easy access to all technical documentation. The suite runs on any tablet, iPad, Android, or PC, and supports Boeing, Airbus, and Embraer aircraft. MRO Suite can operate both in local mode, with all data available on the tablet, and in connected mode, with server access. That allows for line maintenance, where a connection is not always available, as well as connected hangar maintenance.

We also have other products to help maintenance checks, with tools to supervise the proper execution of each task and the assignment of mechanics. All the workflow can be managed from a tablet, and can also be transferred to paper if needed. Our latest innovation uses AI to help with product comprehension and task assignments.

Which advantages does your software offer to your clients compared to what already exists?

The main advantage is that it is multi-fleet. Currently, airlines would have two maintenance chains running parallel, one for Boeing and one for Airbus. The MRO Suite allows having the same product for the entire fleet. It is an economy of scale in terms of cost, training, deployment of software tools. This is becoming fundamental amid the current crisis, which highlights the need to rationalize costs.

We work with two types of companies: either small, which operates dozens of planes, or very large, that has over a hundred. We have good penetration in the Middle East and Asia, hardly in the United States.

Where do you think your next area of growth will be?

Geographically, Europe will be our next target. Several big European companies do not have our product yet. And we will continue our work in Asia, especially in India.

As for our market expansion, we are focusing a lot of our effort on engine maintenance. For the moment we cover the aspects of an airframe taken care of directly by the airline. But we would like to expand on other aspects, known as Tier 1, that include critical systems such as the engine, landing gears, avionics, APUs… Today our software knows how to manage them but we have not yet positioned ourselves in the market.

What about defense? Any prospect in that domain?

Yes, we do plan to expand to this area too. Technically, they are exactly the same products, whether we are talking about an A330 MRTT or even the Rafale. Only the sales cycles are different. Over the last ten years or so, the French military has switched to the S1000D format for its technical documentation - a format that our program supports. We now have a couple of defense projects going on.

With the defense business in mind, could you also expand to drones?

Yes, of course. We even did some tests on land vehicles. The S1000D is a standard for all complex systems. This means that our product can open up to a lot of markets. However, even while expanding, we will remain in the aeronautical maintenance sector for the moment.

Because you lack experience?

On the one hand, yes, but also because they are very closed ecosystems. Today, maintaining an A320 or an MRTT is basically the same thing, the same jobs, the same way of thinking. We could position ourselves on trains or automobiles where the S1000D is used a lot, but that is another ecosystem where we do not have an entry point. Expanding towards military aircraft, helicopters, we remain in related markets.

We have the will to expand, but not to change the business. We do not have the size or time. Getting into aeronautics has already taken us a number of years, all the more so with the crisis. It would be strategically inappropriate.

What were the effects of the crisis on business? With the rationalization of costs, do you expect a favorable post-COVID context?

We lost revenue on contracts that have been missed. 25% and 30% of turnover were lost in the first semester. It is not deadly, we do not have to worry about survival in the medium or long term, but it is still affecting us.

The recovery seems to be going a little faster than the darker scenarios predicted. With Emirates planning to fly 100% of its destinations next summer, the national companies that start taking off… I do not think that there is a crisis in the sense that the sector is going to collapse. In any case, there is a need for planes for international trade, so it will mechanically start again. By the end of 2021, we can hope to see a more stable market. It will depend a lot on the presence of the vaccine, or on another aggravation of the health crisis.

Many companies in this sector used the crisis as an excuse to restructure. The COVID-19 was made a scapegoat. For years we have observed cutting-edge businesses that were ailing financially, but which endured and employed hundreds of people. As luck would have it, the virus put an end to it. Innovation serves as a showcase when things are going well, but when the crisis comes, companies do some spring cleaning.

Do you think that the COVID crisis will put a brake on innovation in the aeronautics field in the coming years?

No, just a change of focus. Innovation will be at the service of cost optimization, in particular thanks to AI. Fingermind follows this logic. There is still a lot of margin in the MRO sector. 

The early days of predictive maintenance made the mistake of harmonizing everything, ignoring that operations and wear of an aircraft are different for every airline. Whether in Finland or the Middle East, a plane will not have the same needs. Therefore, we need personalized solutions for each company. This is what we are targeting in the medium term.

A lot of work is still done on paper, using stamps, before archiving everything physically. For example, C-checks on an A380 require over 2,000 maintenance tasks. This takes from 15 days and to three weeks. On top of that, 30% of the work is unforeseen, meaning that it can take up to 2,500 tasks in total. At the beginning of every shift, the mechanic receives a couple of sheets with their current tasks. In the end, that amounts to more than 5000-pages being printed. One of the most frequent questions from potential customers is “can we print it?”. It is not productive, neither ecologically, nor economically.

Why do you think the situation does not evolve?

This rudimentary system can not be solely blamed on customers. Currently, the industry lacks digital-friendly regulations. For example, electronic signatures are not always valid in the eyes of the authorities. And if they are, it will be only approved regionally. Carriers will not invest in digitization systems as long as those requirements have not been harmonized. It is not only a problem of culture within the industry but also a regulatory requirement for safety purposes.

Fortunately, despite the regulatory aspect delaying the digital transition, habits are moving in the right direction. We are working so that all these systems can be used on a tablet, and all the functions to manage task cards, related maintenance operations, and progress-overseeing by the team leader remain on the tablet.