Omar Bradley, a US General during World War II, famously said, ‘Amateurs talk strategy and professionals talk logistics.’
This decades-old quote is growing in relevance in the 2020s, as defence organisations focus more efforts on the ‘how’ of warfare. In particular, maintenance, repair and tracking of assets is becoming a central talking point for military organisations the world over.
There are three reasons:
1. The high cost of maintenance. According to a McKinsey report, typical armed services maintenance repair and overhaul (MRO) costs account for 10% of a defence force’s budget. (It’s as much as 70% of all aircraft-related costs).
2. The increasing complexity of military operations. The traditional military model of deploying forces from very large bases is likely to give way to more dispersed forces. This will lead to increasingly complex logistical challenges.
3 The availability of ground-breaking technologies such as AI to interpret data sets and make efficiency decisions.
As point three suggests, the solution is data-driven maintenance. This uses integrated, digitally enabled services for data input, reporting and analysis to bring greater efficiency and accuracy. It typically involves using mobile devices at the place of inspection or repair.
A note on definitions, before proceeding. For this article, ‘maintenance’ includes repair and overhaul, asset management, access to technical information, repair requesting, fleet and safety management, maintenance, and engineering planning.
What is the problem with defence maintenance?
Currently, many defence forces suffer from fragmented architecture, legacy business processes and a lack of integration. The quality of information gathered is poor and even that information is not being widely shared between different systems and divisions. This leads to poor decision-making, inefficiencies such as duplication of tasks and wasted time and expense.
Here's a recent example of the scale of the current challenge. In 2022, the MoD launched its Land Integrated Operating Service (LIOS). The brief was to improve the management of the Army’s land fleet, with a focus on areas such as maintenance, upgrades and technical support. The fleet consists of over 30 types of vehicle – from quadbikes at one end to Challenger 2 tanks at the other.
Attention turned to harvesting the data from the various vehicles in the fleet, for analysis that would optimise operations. Each vehicle generated different types of data, including onboard sensor data, supply chain information and engineering drawings. The data in question was held in a variety of formats – from PDFs to printouts and Excel sheets.
Meanwhile, some of this data was not available to share between different departments, or was held by a third party and could not be accessed. Imagine a cabinet, in an unknown location, containing vital information no one even knows exists and you get an idea of the problem.
As this example reveals, finding and then interpreting data can be notoriously difficult.
Why data-driven maintenance is a solution
Adopting data-driven maintenance in defence forces will help eliminate these problems and bring greater efficiency and accuracy to logistical tasks.
Features of this approach include:
- A common, user-friendly platform to deal with all areas of defence maintenance – from inventory management to the movement of goods and asset tracking.
- The inputting of all data, preferably at the site of work, into mobile computing devices such as phones and tablets.
- A ‘single source of truth’, in which data from many systems within the organisation are aggregated to a single location.
- Using AI to isolate patterns in large data sets and inform strategies and efficiencies.
- Widely available access to analytics, reporting, metrics and modelling.
- Organisation-wide deployment of rugged devices to capture and interpret data.
Examples of how data-driven maintenance will work in action
Here’s some examples of how data-driven maintenance will provide an efficient solution.
Optimising maintenance work
Good-quality data could bring dramatic efficiencies in maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) by fine-tuning exactly what is required. For instance, data showing instances of equipment failure could help inform teams if a few crucial parts need replacement rather than a comprehensive, time-consuming and costly upgrade.
Better scheduling and work allocation
Real-time monitoring of how long it actually takes teams to undertake jobs can fine-tune labour resources. For example, one military facility allocated four hours as the shortest job allocation, even though many tasks were shown to take far less time. The right data can correct this problem and deploy workforces accurately.
Data-gathering is notoriously inefficient across many industries and this can also apply to the military. Taking paper notes on-site and typing them up in the office is a double-handling issue. This can be remedied by quickly typing directly into mobile forms or work orders at the place of work.
Automated inventory management
Joined-up data management can also help to create a response approach to parts ordering and availability. If an engineer makes a request at the site of work, this request can be instantly referred to the warehouse and the part despatched. Or, a further layer of control can be introduced by referring some requests to a manager. For instance, if a part is low in stock, an alert can be sent to a manager. They can then prioritise orders based on the highest need, fulfilling requests where they matter most.
Furthermore, with all of this data available and correlated, machine learning can predict requirements and optimise inventory. This may include ensuring not only that parts are in stock, but that they are available in the lowest numbers required to fulfil orders at any time. This can help to ensure availability and reduce overall running costs.
By measuring performance accurately, many other best practice approaches – often from the world of business – can improve productivity. For example, a UK army unit moved from working on vehicles with a single team at a fixed station to a lean manufacturing production line approach. The same unit also introduced a ‘pit stop approach’ to repairs. Instead of waiting for a vehicle to arrive before assessing what was required, they first took instructions from the vehicle's team out in the field. They could then ensure tools, parts and crews were ready to go from the moment the damaged vehicle came in. This reduced the time required to repair each vehicle by 67 per cent.
The question isn’t if defence forces around the world will implement data-driven maintenance across their estates, but the pace of that change.
Yes, military organisations are vast in terms of personnel, divisions and associated contractors – and the task is huge. But so are the benefits of data-driven maintenance in terms of cost and efficiency savings.
Organisations, including defence forces, are already realising the benefits of joined-up maintenance, asset management and logistics. The British Army’s Future Solider programme, with its emphasis on technology, is a sign that an integrated, technology-led approach to maintenance will arrive imminently.
Nuffield Technologies works in partnership with defence organisations to provide perfect-fit Zebra Technologies rugged tablets and phones. We are accredited with JOSCAR, the highly respected supplier evaluation system for the aerospace, defence and security sectors.