Unglamorous and sometimes disregarded the requirement may be, but having readily available spares for GSE really is mission-critical. Get it wrong, and at best the outcome will be a delayed aircraft and angry passengers. At worst it could lead to damage to aircraft or even accidents. Chris Lewis reports.
No one gets particularly excited by items like starter motors these days, but our attention was brought to a major international airport at which three pieces of GSE equipment had gone up in flames. At least one of those fires might have spread to nearby aircraft with catastrophic results. Fortunately, all three separate fires were quickly extinguished and there were no injuries or serious after-effects, but the outcome could easily have been very different.
An investigation revealed that the cause of the various fires was chafing windings in GSE starter motors; further probing apparently suggested that the motors may have been rebuilt by a supplier who had tried to wind the motors by hand rather than by using machinery.
With the benefit of hindsight, this was possibly a case of an apparently cheap option actually turning out much more expensive then anyone bargained for. Buying new starter motors or fully certified reconditioned ones might have been much more cost-effective, given that the investigation into the fires took up ten months of valuable management time. It also illustrates how far due diligence and quality audits may need to reach if they are to uncover potentially serious problems.
One of the problems with GSE spares is that they are exactly the sort of so-called ‘fat’ that cost-conscious management teams like to pare down. Huge stocks of miscellaneous items, often managed on a ‘just in case’ rather than a ‘just in time’ basis can quickly become an out-of-control expense. Spares are hard to manage. They can also be stolen (tyres might be the right size for local cars or pick-up trucks, for example).
At the same time, if a vital piece of GSE is unavailable because of a spares shortage, it could lead to a disgruntled airline switching handlers, or even airports.
Maurizio Anichini, director of safety and quality assurance at handler Bangkok Flight Services (BFS), admits that GSE spares can be a bit of a nightmare, with “too many of one type, and not enough of another”. He believes that there is a lot to be said for using companies such as Sage Parts, which take over the burden of managing GSE spares, although sceptical management first has to be convinced that the margin such companies charge is worthwhile.
Anichini points out that there is more to spares management than a simple cost calculation; the information a spares management company can provide represents a valuable insight into how well equipment is performing, and such a partner can also help ensure that proper preventative maintenance is carried out though service level agreements (SLAs).
Simple things, like ensuring that oil is changed when it should be, can greatly prolong GSE life. Not only will this save money in the long run, but more satisfied airline clients will ultimately lead to greater revenue. “Yes, parts management companies are out to make a profit, but I think there are big benefits to using them,” says Anichini. “It’s not an easy calculation to make, but you have to understand the total cost of ownership – and it could be money well spent.”
Sometimes GSE parts failures can tell you something about other problems at an airport. For example, if towbar shear pins are frequently failing (they can be designed to break in situations in which the tow truck is exerting too much force on the aircraft) that might be a sign of ‘soft’ spots in the tarmac or an uneven pavement.
The supply of GSE spares is recognised as a small but difficult niche area. Compared with industry verticals like cars or mobile phones, volumes are tiny and there are only a handful of companies that specialise in the area, and probably only one – Sage Parts – that operates on anything like a global scale.
Maintenance of GSE spares is often still performed by operators themselves, though the concept of having a third party do it is slowly gaining ground, at least in some parts of the world. Some airlines and handling companies have started to hand over their spare parts inventories and operations to specialist companies, which take away some of the costs and associated management headaches.
The problem with GSE spares – as indeed with maintaining inventories of parts for any complex piece of equipment – is judging the likelihood of a component breaking or wearing out, and weighing that up against the consequences of the GSE equipment going out of action. Another factor to be considered is whether a component can be shipped in from a supplier within an acceptable time frame.
For a major handling operation at a big airport, it is easier to maintain large stocks of GSE spares. Also, as these tend to be in major industrialised countries, there is possibly reasonably ready access to spares held by manufacturers and distributors, where these are not directly available on site.
As well as parts, Sage can provide complete GSE solutions, for example owning an entire inventory and providing people to manage it, or sometimes a hybrid of the two. Essentially, the aim “is to get GSE parts as close to the end-user as possible”, says Michael Bloomfield, executive vice president at Sage Parts. The company has a database of over 6 million items and, perhaps even more importantly, maintains all the relevant, vital information on cross-referencing and compatibility.
Sage can also improve the quality of GSE parts and so reduce the total cost of ownership, Bloomfield continues. “We are, I believe, the only company to have developed GSE parts so as to make them last longer – and we employ engineers to help us do that.”
Often, Sage re-engineers existing GSE parts where those originally supplied have been found lacking in some way. Because GSE is a niche sector, many of the components used started life as parts in completely different applications such as mining, materials handling or construction, and not all of them stand up well to the specific strains imposed on them in airport operations.
It might seem rather a paradox, says Bloomfield, but as a supplier of parts to airports, airlines and handling operations around the world, Sage can often enjoy better economies of scale in making GSE parts than can the manufacturers of the equipment themselves, who often produce equipment in small batches of perhaps ten or so machines at a time.
This has indeed now been recognised by many GSE original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), which buy in Sage parts to make their new machines rather than produce them themselves. Sage may well be able to offer better quality, lower prices – or more importantly, lower total costs of ownership – as well as shorter lead times, Bloomfield argues. In this, the GSE industry is no different from the automotive market, where the companies that supply components used to make new cars and those who supply spare parts for the aftermarket are usually one and the same.
Sage has been expanding its footprint and now operates 36 stocking locations around the world, backed up by four distribution centres for the US, Europe and Asia. “We have been in an aggressive growth spurt for the past two years,” Bloomfield points out. “For example, we opened up an operation in Lima, Peru – we see Latin America as a big growth area – and our location in Singapore is now operational, plus we have a small operation in Macau.”
Sage also recently opened a sales office in Dubai – a region it currently services by flying parts in from its distribution centres on the frequent flights to the emirate – but will consider setting up a stocking operation there soon. Australasia is another area with potential, where “there is definitely a need for a good GSE parts operation”, Bloomfield says.
Many airlines, airports and handlers have come to realise the attraction of letting a specialist take on the burden of owning stock and managing people working in what is quite a specialist area. “We’re pushing very hard to inform the industry of these new methods,” says Bloomfield – and there is now a greater openness to the idea of third-party management of GSE spares.
In some cases, existing labour agreements may not allow outsourcing to third parties, but Sage can offer hybrid models – for example, allowing the airline or handler to continue to employ the people, but taking ownership of the spares stock itself. “We can still give them the luxury of a technician being able to walk up to our counter and only taking ownership of the part when we hand it over to them”, as Bloomfield puts it.
Even where the market is not big enough to justify a Sage stocking location, the company can still streamline the movement of parts to the local airport by reducing freight costs and streamlining Customs processes, he argues. This approach can work well – for example, in Peru, or North Africa, which is serviced via Paris.
JBT AeroTech is meanwhile seeing growing investment in older, used GSE equipment, says aftermarket sales representative Tyler Ringler. “Stations are now budgeting more effectively for continual maintenance and upkeep on ageing fleets,” he notes.
Centralised purchasing models are emerging which mean that most spare parts sourcing activity is now being designated to third parties, Ringler says, adding: “Our JBT Direct eCommerce site allows these high volume stations to look up parts pricing, check availability and place orders without the hassle of picking up the phone. We pride ourselves on leveraging our equipment expertise to boast best-in-industry on-time delivery for spare parts orders.”
Successful supply management is the backbone of a bulletproof spare parts business, whether it is commodity or proprietary parts, he insists. “We have dedicated aftermarket purchasing and engineering resources that ensure we are receiving ISO-certified parts that meet our strict engineering quality requirements to satisfy the application.”
For JBT, the balance of insourcing versus outsourcing relies heavily on how cost-effective it is to purchase or manufacture a piece. “Our purchasing leads maintain excellent relationships with our vendors, and put us at a competitive advantage on bulk discount pricing that we can pass along to our customers.”
Any engineering change to a part, assembly, or feature on JBT’s equipment is passed on to its spare parts team. “As our technologies improve on our equipment, the due diligence for us to research various manufacturers of sensors, controllers, and displays is critical to ensure machine up-time on the ramp. Differing configurations on newer machines make this more critical, to ensure we have proper programming on these types of spare parts prior to delivery,” Ringler says.
As newer machines enter the market, many fleet managers also want to upgrade features as well as carry out general preventative maintenance. This has led to many field installations of newer technologies on older GSE, such as aircraft proximity detection systems on loaders (like JBT’s popular Commander series of loaders).
The rising cost of anti-icing and de-icing fluids has also driven many managers to invest in more accurate ways to track fluid use. Remote machine monitoring through telematics can allow for incremental adjustments to blending rates on different trucks to match changing ambient air temperatures. “Supporting these types of trends with competitively priced field kits and spare parts is proving to be beneficial for our customers to stay on top of their GSE operating requirements,” Ringler informs.