The Importance of Being Standardized – Part Deux: The ATA Spec 2000 Family of Standards
This is the second portion of a two-part article on aviation industry standards. The first article discussed the need for standards and how they emerge. This portion will cover one of the most widely-used international industry standards: the ATA spec family of aviation standards (and ATA Spec 2000 in particular). There are many more industry standards, but from an aftermarket point of view, ATA Spec 2000 is one of the key means of transacting aircraft parts-related business. This is why I chose to explore this particular set of standards further.
Some background information is in order first. ATA Spec 2000 is developed and maintained by the ATA e-business program which is an international standards program consisting of 120 airlines, suppliers and technology providers. The ATA e-business program is responsible for publishing a full suite of information exchange standards to support engineering, maintenance, material management, digital security and flight operations. Most of these standards were originally developed by the world’s airlines and suppliers, but under the auspices of the Air Transport Association of America (ATA), recently renamed Airlines for America (A4A), one of the oldest and most influential aviation industry groups in the U.S. However, ATA/A4A launched the ATA e-business program in 2006 to formalize the process of international standards development and to provide the global aviation community with an open and consensus-based program where all participating airlines and suppliers had equal influence. This was particularly important since many of the standards were already used heavily by the international aviation community. Upon launching the program, ATA/A4A moved the full suite of e-business specifications that are covered in this article under the direct control of the international ATA e-business program.
In order to understand the importance of these standards better, it helps to understand some of the politics of the many industry standards bodies. The first article in this series covered some of this, and we will expand on this further here as it pertains to the ATA standards.
NOTE: Although ATA changed its name to A4A, the ATA e-business program and ATA series of specs will continue to use the “ATA” moniker.
In the Beginning…
Soon after the first commercial flight of an airplane, industry trade groups were being formed. The ATA/A4A is one of the oldest, and came into being in 1936 to represent a number of these sexy start-up businesses called airlines. Once this industry began to flourish, it became apparent some level of coordination (aka standards) was needed in various business aspects. The railroads had already begun establishing standards decades before this in order to increase cooperation and reduce costs, so it can be argued that the transportation sector in general was one of the early pioneers in establishing common business rules.
Due to the interdependent nature of the airlines business, and its dependence upon a small number of aircraft OEMs and suppliers, it was quickly recognized that significant productivity gains and cost reductions can be achieved through rapid, standardized communication of information. (Can you imagine trying to operate a commercial airline without this?).One of the key areas to address is the procurement/supply of aftermarket aircraft parts, as well as their repair and related activities (like warranties, reliability and performance metrics).
How do we address this? We bring together a bunch of airlines that are in cut-throat competition with one another, sprinkle in the suppliers who sell them spare parts and services (and the airlines are probably not that happy with their prices at times) and — just for good measure — bring in foreign airlines and suppliers as well (to spice things up further), and voila! The ATA Spec 200 (yes, we’re missing a zero, but more on that later) standard was born! This happened in the late 1950s. Spec 200 was created to guide the mechanical interchange of provisioning, order placement and shipment information for the industry. Due to the prevailing technology during that period, IBM punch cards with an expansive set of 80 columns of characters were used. (And you thought that Twitter was limiting? If you don’t understand that comment, go ask your teenage kid for an explanation). As the march of technology is relentless, soon this standard was replaced by its successor, Spec 2000, in the mid-1980s. The newly revised and renamed standard supported newer data format approaches due to increased communications capabilities and increased use of electronic data (goodbye to punch cards, which followed vacuum tubes, teletype terminals and buggy whips into our history books, or, maybe I should say, our downloadable Kindle-based e-books).
What Exactly is Spec 2000?
Spec 2000 is a comprehensive set of specifications that focus on aerospace/aviation industry e-business and center on the industry’s interconnected global supply chain. It’s commonly used by the world’s airlines and suppliers, and helps in simplifying business processes. This helps increase operational efficiencies and cost savings by creating a common set of processes and data formats.
The Spec 2000 suite of standards can be compartmentalized into three major categories:
1. E-commerce standards
• Encompass sourcing, order administration and invoicing, repair order administration and warranty claims
2. File standards
• Encompass provisioning, delivery configuration, inventory consumption, performance reporting and reliability data collection and exchange
3. Traceability standards
• Encompass bar code/RFID-based and include bar-coded shipping label, bar-coded parts identification, RFID parts identification and traceability data
These three categories are organized into major chapters (as shown in Figure 1 below), each designed to stand alone for ease of understanding, as well as ease of implementation. A common support data dictionary (CSDD) document defines common elements used throughout the Spec 2000 standards.
Dozens of software vendors and service providers have developed solutions based upon this set of standards to meet differing market needs. The ATA itself also provides a service, the ATA Aviation Marketplace, which supports a limited set of e-commerce functions for the industry (more on this later in the article).
Many of the world’s largest airlines, OEMs, suppliers and aftermarket service providers use Spec 2000 for some portion of their aircraft spare parts transactions. Examples of this include:
1. Published estimates from various sources indicate that ~1,000 companies worldwide use Spec 2000 to transact aircraft parts-related business. Accurate totals for the numbers of orders placed were not available, but the volume of parts handled is high.
2. Airbus and Boeing use Spec 2000 in handling orders from airlines for aftermarket parts, using Type B and XML. Most of the larger suppliers also used to support airline/operator customers and other aftermarket service providers.
3. A majority of the larger airlines use Spec 2000 to transact orders for parts electronically, such as American Airlines, Delta Airlines, United Airlines, British Airways, Air Canada and Air France, among dozens of others globally.
• Example: Air France/KLM E&M uses Spec 2000 EDI (which uses IATA Type B messaging to send/receive) to automatically send ~70 percent of its orders, with the remainder going via fax/standard mail
In regards to the standards aspects that focus on e-commerce, the ATA operates a Web-based service (the ATA Aviation Marketplace) which serves as a central point for those listing aircraft part pricing information via Spec 2000, among other capabilities such as repair and surplus parts. Strict security measures are in place to ensure that pricing information is only communicated to desired trading partners. Companies are not required to list their sales catalogs here, but there are about 150 companies taht either list or use these lists.
E-Commerce via Spec 2000: How They Use It
This is arguably the most visible and highly-used aspect of Spec 2000, since large sums of money are directly involved. There are a number of ways in which buyers and sellers can transact business for aftermarket aircraft parts and services. (Shameless plug by the author: the OPM Research report on aircraft parts marketplaces contains the most extensive write up on how to use Spec 2000 and variations of e-commerce mechanisms. On a serious note, we do not know of any other resource that contains this level of topic detail.)
Procurement departments place orders with a supplier using a standard format for electronic transmission (as defined in specific chapters of Spec 2000), and per a standard process, as well as handle status checks on orders, change orders, shipping status and other related functions.
Spec 2000 is designed to enable efficient computer-to-computer communication by providing standard data definitions and transaction formats for message exchange. The primary transmission method for many years has been over the SITA and ARINC networks using an industry-specific message standard (IATA Type B), although we are now seeing the Web-based Type B messages as well. Type B is a form of electronic communications which is used globally and has primarily depended upon closed, secured networks which had a higher cost per message. (Costs have been driven down for many years now). For this reason, many users have been moving to using Internet-based messaging. This reduces or eliminates the cost of per-message fees but requires trading partners to spend much more on securing their networks and messages, or working with Internet-based service providers which compete against the legacy networks from ARINC and SITA. We are in the very early stages of this battle between secured, legacy service providers and reduced-cost Internet-based service providers. The use of newer Spec 2000 representations created for Internet messaging use are known as extensible markup language (XML). XML evolved from the Type B-focused message formats.
Many of the Spec 2000 processes are supported by either Type B or XML messages (such as the basic process example shown in Figure 2), but newer constructs such as the emerging use of e-forms replacing paper forms will only be supported in XML for various logistical and technical reasons.
Most airlines, suppliers and aftermarket service providers (known generically as trading partners) which use Spec 2000 will typically use a third-party service provider such as ARINC or SITA for Type B messaging. Most transactions today are still over Type B networks, but Internet-based messaging is slowly emerging. Expect some interesting technological advances to pop up here. Spec 2000 users will also require additional software to interface with the networks, read and/or write the Spec 2000 messages, and optionally to integrate with back-end systems. The necessary software may be available from a mix of IT suppliers including the networks themselves, as commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) software, or created in house.
As previously mentioned, the ATA/A4A operates an optional service known as the ATA Aviation Marketplace for those firms that publish catalogs of parts for sale or have repair capabilities. It does not support the execution of orders, rather it provides a centralized mechanism where buyers and sellers can find each other — kinda like a shopping mall operator that rents space to the GAP, so I can stop by and find my favorite khakis on sale. (Hopefully … who the heck pays full price anymore?) This is illustrated in Figure 3.
Many Spec 2000-based users either use third-party solutions or implement systems internally to work with key trading partners. This requires a more thorough understanding of the standard in order to reap the benefits that using it provides.
According to Doug Ellis of Aveos, “Implementing Spec 2000 is complicated, and requires real knowledge and industry (business process) expertise for a timely, successful outcome. In my testing with trading partners (TPs) over the years, the mapping of business processes to EDI standards is not done well in most cases, and typically requires lots of testing and rework. That in itself is time consuming, but there is also much time spent in discovery and knowledge transfer.”
Aveos has also encountered trading partners that did not take the time to understand Spec 2000 fully. This impacts the not only the cost of implementation, but also the value to a trading relationship. One such example is when a trading partner did not properly follow the standard to specify details of an order, and simply expected that someone would call to manually process the changes … thus defeating the entire purpose of automating the order process. While there are instances when manual intervention is required (you cannot automate everything), you simply should not have to most of the time. You can trust technology to handle standardized processes. (Trust, but verify.)
Approximately 50 percent of Aveos purchasing is via a Spec 2000, Type B-based network (EDI) for technical spares. They intend to grow that significantly with a new ERP system and messaging engine from starting in 2012, so there is an obvious financial reward for Aveos operationally. The remaining PO volume is handled manually and is for non-technical purchases, repair services and general needs.
“If we were to move that 50 percent into a non-EDI process, we would be overwhelmed with paperwork and would need to add a dozen buyers and AP admins or more to manage,” says Ellis. “Needless to say, without a common EDI language and dictionary to establish the rules by which we will do business electronically, the cost to the industry would be untenable if we were connecting individually to each trading partner, each with their own processes and standards.”
Despite encountering issues with some trading partners, Spec 2000 provides an accepted industry approach to allowing the industry to automate various processes, thus reducing costs and streamlining operations.
File Standards: Exchanging Data
Many chapters in Spec 2000 delineate many of the data-exchange specifications for the transmission of files between suppliers and aircraft operators. The intention of defining such transmissions is not only to improve efficiency and accuracy of data, but also to provide the industry with a cost-effective means of managing such processes between hundreds or thousands of trading partners. In the recent past, many such data transfers were accomplished using magnetic media or over the closed ARINC or SITA Type B networks, but these are also happening over Internet connections.
Traceability Standards: RFID and Barcodes
Bar codes have been around for many years and have been used on aircraft parts and shipments for some time. Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is newer and has been built upon the barcode legacy (to a degree). Both have a place in aviation and both assist with traceability of aircraft parts. This is why they are both contained in ATA Spec 2000 Chapter 9, automated identification and data capture (AIDC). AIDC defines how to mark and identify products and/or store information which can be read in an automated manner. RFID technology is based upon the wireless transmission of information from tag to a reader, which does not require a direct line of site, as bar codes need to. Each of these technologies has a place in modern aviation, as well as in related industries such as travel (ticketing), baggage, shipping and logistics.
The air transport industry has a need to better identify aircraft parts for safety, economic and regulatory reasons, so traceability is a strong sell for the use of AIDC technologies. By using permanent and semi-permanent tagging of parts, it will be much easier to substantiate the identification of a particular part, where it came from and its status.
“For 20 years the industry has had a standard for giving parts a ‘social security number’ — a permanent, cradle-to-grave ID — that is the foundation of the traceability standard,” states Jon Andresen, president of Technology Solutions. “That standard is a unique serial number within the CAGE code of the company marking the part, which leaves the part number alone to roll with future modifications as business dictates. Barcodes and RFID technologies offer a better-faster-cheaper way to get that SSN data into your systems without any mistakes. Traceability is a minimum standard that gathers data on ‘who did what to the part when’ and allows the industry to remove costs and errors from our business process.”
Where To Find More Information
The author maintains a Web site with up-to-date data on many of the key Spec 2000 service and software providers. Visit it at http://opmresearch.com/links.html.
Conclusion: Standards Are Good
Spec 2000 is an important set of rules and definitions which is the culmination of the efforts of thousands of industry participants from hundreds of companies over the years. This widely-followed standard has done more to reduce industry costs related to operations and aftermarket parts than any other set of standards in this business area. For that, it deserves a degree of respect and support.
However, any standard is only as good as the degree of adoption by its industry. While Spec 2000 has certainly reached a wide audience in top industry tiers, it has not fully penetrated beyond this level. Some of the reasons for this were valid in the past, in that both the specialized software from solution providers and network charges per message sent or received may have been uneconomical. That is no longer the case today, as we have a number of potential solutions to choose from, as well as cost decreases in messaging fees due to the Internet providing some much-needed competitive pressures. Many buyers procure parts via supplier Web sites (or via paper-based methods) and through third-party marketplaces. Large airlines and OEMs have significant investments in legacy systems, many of which support Spec 2000 through a secured EDI connection. You can expect that this will be case for some years to come.
In fact, with e-enabled aircraft and communications systems emerging onto the market, the need to standardize how we address newer data mechanisms such as RFID tag and the information contained upon them (since the cost of memory is constantly dropping, and we are able to insert ever more data onto these tags), electronic forms (replacing paper forms and saving a few trees), and Internet-based communications forcing changes to how each and every supplier and operator interact with one another. The ATA e-business program and other standards bodies will face more pressure to accommodate technological advances which are either recreating existing industry processes or, quite simply, crafting new ones.
Expect that Spec 2000 will not only add in more standardized functions as new industry processes emerge, and existing ones evolve, and that both of these set of changes will require additional data definitions and common rules. With the expansion of machine-to-machine communications upon us already, there will be a need for the staff at airlines/operators, OEMs/suppliers and aftermarket service providers to better manage, report on, and collaborate on the resulting information. Data is simply data (and rather useless in and of itself) unless you can understand it and know what to do with it. While data provides us with information, understanding this information is driven by having a commonized set of methods (standards) so that you can understand data provided by others, thus creating a deeper knowledge set for yourself.
No person or company is an island and each must interact with others. Having an understanding of how better to do so — and how to more intelligently act upon knowledge gained — is driven by having a common lingua franca. Thank you, Spec 2000.
John Pawlicki is CEO and principal of OPM Research. He also works with Virtual Security International (VSI), where he consults to the DOT’s Volpe Center, handling various technology and cyber security projects. He managed and deployed various products over the years, including the launch of CertiPath (with world’s first commercial PKI bridge). Pawlicki has also been part of industry efforts at the ATA and other related groups, and was involved in the effort to define and allow the use of electronic FAA 8130-3 forms. He recently completed his writing of the ‘Aerospace Marketplaces Report’ which analyzed third-party sites that support the trading of aircraft parts. For more information, visit OPMResearch.com.