Electronic Documents Are Invading the Aerospace Industry (Finally)

(Part one of a two-part article on electronic forms — this article covers the business need to replace paper documents with electronic forms, and the next issue of this magazine will contain an article which provides an overview of the technology used to create, receive and manage eForms.)

In recent years, the aerospace industry has been experiencing various technology-driven changes which are affecting not only aircraft design and function, but also back-office processes that support maintenance operations.

One of these changes addresses Airworthiness Release Certificates (ARCs) (FAA Form 8130-3/EASA Form One/Transport Canada TCCA Form 24-0078), and how they are managed and authenticated.

While these particular sets of forms are not required by the regulators for every ‘use case’ that the industry employs them for, most recipients of aircraft parts transactions either demand that they are supplied, or, quite simply feel more comfortable when they are provided. In fact, these are among the most used forms in the aviation world today.

The Problem with Paper-based Forms Today

Manufacturers and parts providers spend considerable amounts of resources in reissuing, establishing the pedigree of previously issued documents (and their associated aircraft parts) and performing investigations on Suspected Unapproved Parts (SUPs). Each of these tasks is a non-revenue-producing activity, so these firms have an obvious interest in mitigating issues associated with such activities.

On the other hand, operators and maintenance operations that utilize parts depend upon having trusted, usable documents for every part that goes onto an aircraft. Each time a needed document is misplaced or damaged (e.g. coffee spilled on it), or was not properly filled out, the associated part is unavailable for use and sometimes incurs costs for reinspection. Such activities not only drive up direct costs, but also drive up inventory costs since more parts need to be stocked to provide contingencies.

Modernizing Documents: Moving to Electronic Documents/Forms

Such scenarios dictate a change in how important documents are generated, managed, authenticated and transmitted. Thus, electronic forms (eForms) have been introduced to this part of the industry. They supersede paper-driven processes that had been in place since the beginning of the industry. eForms provide something that paper-based documents cannot: complete, verifiable trust.

Specifically, anyone can substantiate that an eForm has not been tampered with, since most software packages that support this type of technology inform the user if a digitally-signed document has been altered in any way. Secondly, these software packages also will check to see if the document signer’s digital ID was valid at the time of signing by verifying this with the third party that issued this digital identity. (More on this process in the next issue of this magazine.) Essentially, since the third party that provides these digital credentials to those needing a digital identity established the validity of the person or company that procured these credentials, anyone who receives a document/form digitally signed with these credentials can verify the validity of these credentials with the third party, providing a greater degree of trust.

The industry is clearly ready for moving onto true eForms usage. Some of the key benefits of data-driven eForms include:

• Facilitates improved reliability, consistency and timeliness of data

• Difficult to forge undetected; originals verifiable directly to source

• Reduced lost, or misdirected originals

• No more damaged/mutilated originals

• Reduced errors

• Reduced costs for record retention

• Facilitates access to part documentation history

The ‘e8130-3’ is one of the first industry-wide initiatives to move away from paper-based tasks to data-driven processes. Expect many more forms to follow in the coming years as the FAA and other regulators take lessons learned from this initial foray and allow industry to move forward.

ATA’s Spec 2000 is a global aviation specification to automate the business processes and information exchange associated with aircraft parts, materiel, maintenance and reliability. This specification encompasses a wide variety of information exchange and is used broadly by the world’s airlines and suppliers. For more on this: Spec2000.com

XML (Extensible Markup Language) is a flexible way to create common information formats and share both the format and the data on the World Wide Web, intranets, and elsewhere. Spec 2000 XML has definitions for use in support of FAA 8130-3 eForms.

PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) is a set of hardware, software, people, policies, and procedures needed to create, manage, distribute, use, store, and revoke digital certificates. In cryptography, a PKI is an arrangement that binds public keys with respective user identities by means of a certificate authority (CA). Applications use PKI-based digital certificates to create unique digital signatures (which combine the source document, digital certificate of the signer, date/time, etc to create a unique ‘signature’ which is nearly impossible to duplicate).

How This Began — Industry Effort to Address This Issue

During the past decade, various industry efforts to address the issue how of these and other regulatory forms are generated and managed had begun. A number of years ago the Air Transport Association (ATA) formed a team of airlines/operators, manufacturers, aftermarket suppliers, repair stations and industry solution providers (along with the FAA, and observers from Transport Canada and EASA) to provide a better structure for this group.

After several years of discussions and crafting together an industry-supported standard, the ATA released its initial guidance in the form of ATA Spec 2000 Chapter 16 in December 2008. (Spec 2000 is a wide-ranging set of standards for everything from aircraft operations to supply chain processes. )This guideline provides detailed guidance for implementing changes to FAA’s parts distribution form that became effective in May 2009 via FAA Order 8130.21F. In addition to changes related to document preparation, the FAA now will allow airlines, OEM part manufacturers, distributors and part repair facilities to use an “electronic” form for validating the airworthiness of new or repaired aircraft parts. The electronic document, known as Form 8130-3 ARC, incorporates the use of data inputs, a specified computer language and a digitized electronic signature mechanism. Paper forms will still be allowed and required if a glitch occurs in the system.

Use of the eForm allows the part supplier to ship the part and send the electronic 8130-3 ARC form to the receiver (end-customer) simultaneously. When the parts arrive, the “matching up” process can go more smoothly and the receiver is no longer burdened by the manual filing or document-scanning tasks.

Spec 2000 Chapter 16 was developed by the industry, but was written with cooperation of the FAA. This specification employs the use of eXtensible Markup Language (XML) as the standard format for exchange of electronic aircraft product and part documentation. XML is the predominant technology for data interchange and has inherent properties that support the portability of information, a vital prerequisite for interoperability and system integration. This capability makes it possible to completely automate processing of the data contained in electronic documents. ATA’s Spec 2000 set of standards provides a guideline for anyone wanting to create or manage electronic 8130-3s.

Additionally, electronic documents can be used to transmit data corresponding to the following nonregulatory forms. In cases where the sale or transfer of a part does not require a new ARC, one of these eForms will be issued with a reference to the previous eForm to provide traceability back to the ARC governing airworthiness of the part:

• Certificate of Conformance (C of C)

• Transfer Document

The increase in using electronic data (documents, manuals, commercial transactions, etc.) is driving the need for  data archiving in databases and off-site storage, resulings in reduced costs associated with storing, sending and resending (for customers who lose their originals) as compared to handling paper documents and forms. Also worth noting is that data on electronic forms can be extracted via electronic means and used in business intelligence, data analysis and reporting much more easily than data ‘trapped’ in paper documents. Once data is ‘extractable’ by other applications, the value of the data increases over time to organizations that are able to sort, report and perform detailed analysis with this ever-increasing data set.

Digital Security: Eliminating the Need for ‘Blind Trust’

Current digital security technologies are in use today in various industries and governments and are entering use in the aerospace/aviation market. Electronic documents are only one of the uses of these technologies, since these documents need to have integrity and reliability in order to be trusted. Other applications and use cases are emerging that will require digital identities, specifically those associated with new generation aircraft. With the increase in data complexity of aircraft systems, expect that personnel who maintain aircraft will need to become more familiar with and depend upon having digital credentials in order to ‘interface’ with these aircraft. In fact, both Boeing and Airbus require some degree of use of PKI-based digital credentials for those who maintain aircraft such as the A380 and B787 (once it enters the market).

                          

In order to achieve a measure of trust, the ATA specification employs a set of open, internationally-accepted digital security standards through the use of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) XML Signature recommendation. W3C is an internationally-recognized group used by many industries. Its standard consists of three components:

1. Digital certificate: A unique digital identification assigned by a trusted third party to an individual or organization.

2. Digital signature: Used by the owner of a digital certificate to “sign” electronic files digitally. A digital signature is an encrypted string of data based on a complex mathematical algorithm.

3. Public key infrastructure (PKI): The method for determining the currency and validity of the message sender’s digital certificate.

As organizations move away from paper documents with ink signatures or authenticity stamps, digital signatures can provide added assurances of the evidence to provenance, identity and status of an electronic document, as well as acknowledging informed consent and approval by a signatory.

Below are some common reasons for applying a digital signature to eForms:

Authentication: Electronic documents that have digital signatures applied to them can have the source of the document be authenticated (so you know exactly who signed the document). When ownership of a digital signature secret key is bound to a specific user, a valid signature shows that the message was sent by that user. This removes any doubt as to the originator of the document and essentially eliminates forged documents.

Integrity: If a document is signed digitally, any change to the document after it has been signed will invalidate the signature, and software applications that support PKI (most email packages, PDF, etc.) will indicate this to someone who has opened the document. Essentially, there is no feasible way to modify a document and its digital signature to create an altered document with a valid signature that matches the previous one.

Non-repudiation: This is a key aspect of digital signatures, in that an entity that has signed a document cannot deny at a later time having signed it.

This is a rather wide and deep topic. We are only touching on the surface here with the expressed intent of raising the level of awareness of this topic that will be growing in use in our industry. The next article in this series will delve into this a little deeper (for non-IT audiences).

Conclusion

In the past decade we have seen great advances in aircraft technology (with aircraft essentially becoming flying networks and generating an ever-increasing amount of data) and supply chain collaboration (from inventory management of complex supplier webs, to scheduling integrated systems build across a global set of partners). These advancements have only recently started taking effect in a greater way into the aftermarket/maintenance past of the business. Expect that this trend will not only continue but increase in the coming years. It is a great time to be part of the aerospace/aviation business as it experiences a radical change in how we conduct business. 

About D.O.M. Magazine

D.O.M. magazine is the premier magazine for aviation maintenance management professionals. Its management-focused editorial provides information maintenance managers need and want including business best practices, professional development, regulatory, quality management, legal issues and more.

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Joe Escobar (jescobar@dommagazine.com)
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Greg Napert (gnapert@dommagazine.com)
Publisher, Sales & Marketing
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Bob Graf (bgraf@dommagazine.com)
Director of Business, Sales & Marketing
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