Science and Technology News

Friday, May 10, 2013

eTools Lite a 'game changer' for maintainers

y Philip Rhodes
Air Force Reserve Command Public Affairs

5/8/2013 - ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga.  -- An innovative program developed by Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command here is expected to improve productivity, save maintenance man-hours, and the Air Force $12 million.

Called eTools Lite, the program improves on the Air Force's original mandate to put aircraft maintenance technical orders into an electronic format by placing the digital files on iPads instead of the costlier, heavier and more complicated ruggedized laptops.

With the iPads and eTools Lite, access to more than 2,000 technical orders is a simple swipe of the finger, a convenience not lost on aircraft maintainers.

"Maintainers are calling this the best thing since sliced bread, a game changer," said Corey Runge, a former F-16 crew chief and a member of the AFRC team that developed, tested and fielded the ingenious solution.

Developed in partnership with AFRC's Communications and Logistics directorates, eTools Lite reduces the number of ruggedized laptops needed by the maintenance community. Some laptops will still be used in supervisory and troubleshooting roles but the vast majority of tech data access by AFRC maintainers will be done via iPads.

According to Col. Wendy Deemer, chief of AFRC Logistics Operations, eTools Lite will be adopted by the Air Force on an attrition basis.

Col. Larry Stephenson, deputy director of Logistics, led the AFRC team that took eTools Lite from concept to implementation in just two and half years. Team members included, Deemer, Majs. Christina Manning and Ellen Weaver, Capt. Terrell Eikner, Senior Master Sgt. Wendy Blevins, Jerry Ruiz, Bruce Gaynor, Cynthia Schultz, Michael Phillips and Runge.

Several years ago Air Force mandated that technical orders and other instructions be converted from paper to portable digital format so aircraft maintainers could easily access tech data in PDF form on laptops instead of lugging binders of paper TOs to the flightline.

In concept, the laptop solution seemed plausible. In reality, Deemer said, the laptops did not work as originally intended.

Runge agreed. A crew chief for eight years at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., before joining the AFRC logistics team, he has firsthand experience with the cumbersome, heavy laptops.

"We had to wait 10-15 minutes after logging in just to connect to the network," he said. "By the time I got out to the flight line, I had to deal with WIFI connectivity issues. It just wasn't working. At the time, most of the mechanics preferred to take paper TOs."

"It really defeated the purpose [of having electronic tech orders]," Deemer said. "The whole idea was to save money. It didn't save a whole lot of money.

Ruggedized laptops cost nearly $3,500 apiece. Converting to the iPads provides the Air Force a cost avoidance of more than $12 million over the course of a three-year tech refresh cycle, according to Deemer.

Michael Phillips, AFRC Technical Order Distribution Office manager, is credited with bringing the iPad solution to the table.

The iPad was chosen because it performed better than other tablet devices they tested, Phillips said.

"The iPad can hold thousands of TOs, and it can open more than one book at a time, which wasn't a capability of some of the other tablets we tested at the time," he said.
"These are standard off-the-shelf iPads," Phillips explained. "We haven't changed a thing other than disable WIFI and the camera. All we added was a rubber waterproof and scratch-resistant cover. And, we can field them at less than one-ninth the cost of the ruggedized laptops."

"Oddly enough, the maintainers like the iPads so much, they take better care of them because they see them as such a valuable tool"

To ensure the iPads could safely be used in and around aircraft, the devices underwent military standards testing at the Air National Guard and Air Reserve Test Center in Tucson, Ariz.

The command then fielded iPads at six AFRC bases to stress the devices in extreme cold, heat and humidity. Maintainers in Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, Indiana, Ohio and Florida put the iPads through the paces.

"Feedback we got from the maintainers was fantastic. They said the devices could revolutionize maintenance," Phillips said.

"What we're seeing with the iPads is more efficient and effective tech order usage, as has been reported during operational readiness and other inspections," Deemer said.
A recent Air Combat Command Combined Unit Inspection of the 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick AFB, Fla., commended the unit for "sound technical order usage." The rescue wing was an early adopter of the eTools Lite system.

The iPads are so convenient and easy to use, maintainers race to the tool crib each morning to get one before they run out.

Runge explains why.

On a typical maintenance job, an F-16 crew chief carries six to eight tech orders, work cards and job guides. This makes the TO kit weigh 15 to 20 pounds. The iPad, which contains nearly all the TO's in the Air Force library, weighs 2.5 pounds and can be grasped in one hand.

"With paper tech orders, maintainers have a tough time dealing with wind, rain and hydraulic fluid. The paper has the potential to blow away, creating a foreign object damage hazard better known as FOD," Runge said. "You get the picture."

Despite the benefits of the iPads, the logistics directorate faced an uphill battle to get them, said Deemer.

"There were a lot of naysayers," she said. Fielding the iPads took considerable effort, from selecting the best device from a host of competing products, testing, then developing the concept of operations, policies and procedures and management of the program.

"But, it was worth pursing," Deemer said.

"We've had the great privilege to have leaders here who recognized that it was worth pursuing and went through all the pain that is required to get something like this. I think this is a tremendous accomplishment.

"This is one of the greatest advancements in maintenance that we've seen in recent years because it directly benefits maintainers. It immediately makes their jobs easier, quicker. I'm excited about this and as more people start using the iPad they will be excited, too," Deemer said.

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