Interview: Efficiency gains with ground support equipment

As in many other fields, automation and sustainability will be the dominant themes in the years ahead for GSE (ground support equipment). These universal buzzwords both relate to today’s requirement for maximum efficiency at the workplace. But what exactly constitutes maximum efficiency on the apron? And how can it be achieved? Rüdiger Dube, Head of Strategic Product Management Airport Technology at Goldhofer, explains the process adjustments and technologies needed to make ground handlers fit for the future.

Starting with the basics: How important is the subject of efficiency for GSE? What are operators doing to optimize their processes in this respect?

Generally speaking, efficiency in the field of ground handling is simply about achieving maximum performance through the minimum use of resources. We speak of efficiency gains when all processes are handled at the same level or ideally at a higher level but with less personnel and equipment. The decisive factor here is a 360-degree view of all aspects and requirements in everyday GSE operations. Viewing individual processes in isolation is not the solution.

In this regard, the industry has tended to be very conservative in the past. Few changes have been made to established processes and little thought given to proven methods of working. Of course, this is not the way to identify opportunities for increased efficiency. Ironically enough, this reluctance to make changes is a product of the industry’s long and successful track record. As air travel has seen decades of almost uninterrupted growth, which has also greatly benefited GSE, operators have had little motivation to question the way they work. Due to the far-reaching effects of the Corona pandemic, however, things have started to change.

What challenges will the industry have to face in the future? Where do you see the most urgent need for action?

The most challenging question at the moment is doubtless how to manage the Covid-19 crisis. The most important thing here is to redesign processes so as to minimize the points of contact between employees. This is the only way to effectively reduce the risk of infection. A decisive factor in this context is a higher degree of automation. A lot of work that is still performed by personnel today can be handled by autonomous vehicles and machines in the future. In many cases, the technology is already available. This is one way to protect employees from infection as well as other hazards and free them up for more challenging work.

In the area of maintenance and service especially, innovative technologies are opening up completely new scenarios. For example, we have been working for some time now with augmented reality glasses. They enable us to offer direct interactive support to customers on site, without the need to be physically present. Our service employees see exactly what the customer sees and can provide direct feedback – both verbally and visually – via the augmented reality functionality. This procedure not only reduces unnecessary travel but also significantly minimizes vehicle downtime. For the operators, however, this means involving their employees in the changes and convincing them of the benefits. New technologies alone are not enough; the work processes must also be modified accordingly. Ground handling technology now goes beyond the hardware; it also includes consulting services and training.

Are these changes already being adopted? What is being implemented at the present time?

Currently most of our customers are still in the orientation phase, performing a detailed evaluation of the status quo. As we all know, due to the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus regulations, capacity utilization in the air travel industry is currently in the doldrums. To make the best of this situation, however, many ground handlers are taking the opportunity for a long-needed phase of process analysis. The results enable them to make sound decisions and identify the products they need. Already, more and more operators are investing in forward-looking technologies. Goldhofer’s »PHOENIX« E towbarless tow tractor (the electric version of the AST-2), for example, recently went into service at Munich airport, and the »BISON« E 620, which is also electrically powered, is currently undergoing trials at Vienna International Airport.

Another concept that has been a buzzword for some time now is “single man operations”. How relevant is the subject for your customers today and how can it be implemented effectively?

Many European operators – especially in Germany, France, the UK, Austria and Switzerland – already make systematic use of this form of aircraft handling, and it can now be considered standard procedure there. In most low-wage countries, however, the situation is quite different. Where labor is relatively cheap, such as in the USA or Asia, there is less reason to reduce the number of employees, and there tends to be little interest in the subject of single man operations. However, the Corona pandemic is starting to trigger a rethink there as well, also because compliance with the hygiene rules and requirements now in force is otherwise hard to achieve. The principle is clear: the less contact between employees, the better. Future autonomous operation technologies for GSE equipment will also play a decisive role in this respect. In general, it must be said that single man operations can only be implemented with the help of modern technology. The greater the responsibility of the individual employees, the more drastic the consequences if they make a mistake or are unable to perform their duties. These risks can be effectively reduced through a high degree of automation.

Let’s return to the subject of efficiency: What does Goldhofer have to offer operators looking for efficiency gains in GSE?

In the past, high-performance vehicles were the main thrust of sales. This is still our core competence today, of course, but in the meantime Goldhofer has greatly expanded its offering in line with the value proposition concept. This begins in the preliminary phase with advisory support for the customer, with the focus on the optimum use of the vehicles. This means ground handlers are not only provided with high-performance vehicles, but are also taught how to use them to optimum effect in terms of economics and sustainability.

We also attach great importance to the subject of lifecycle costs. Operators are presented with transparent calculations showing how high the total cost of ownership will be over the entire useful life of the vehicle. In this context, the follow-up aspects of the purchase must also be considered in any assessment of overall efficiency. This includes the various training services that we offer our customers. Our modular training program covers all the relevant topics – from basic vehicle operation to fault diagnosis and maintenance as well as training sessions for specific functions. Today, many of the training units are also available online. This not only saves time and money but also ensures the availability of all training units despite strict Corona regulations.

Goldhofer operates as a full solution provider not only in Europe but also in the USA and in the emerging markets in Africa and the Middle East. In order to strengthen our local presence, we also established a regional office and logistics center in Dubai in 2018 in addition to our facility in Miami. Whether in Nigeria, Morocco or the Emirates, Goldhofer can provide every customer with a tailor-made solution.

What is your assessment of future developments in the market? How do you think the airport industry and the GSE market will develop and recover in the years ahead?

Market consolidation is a certainty, and some ground handlers will not survive the crisis; that is a regrettable fact. Apart from this, it can be assumed that the industry will be able to return to its pre-Corona level within about three years. This is assuming that the necessary changes are implemented across the board, and operators move forward into the future in an innovative spirit. In addition to efficiency gains through optimized workflows and greater automation, another focus should be placed on sustainability. Vehicles and GSE equipment with electric drives are one of the keys to reduced emissions. For this reason, the relevant infrastructure is already being included in the plans for new airports, and retrofitting is very much an option for existing airports.

In this context, there is one important aspect that must not be neglected: Sustainability does not end with the choice of drive for the vehicles! A wide range of telemetry functions provide for a holistic approach. Remote vehicle access means a lot of maintenance work can be performed faster and more economically than ever before, with lower travel costs and fuel consumption involved for the service personnel on the one hand and reduced downtimes for the ground handler on the other. At the same time the data collected from the vehicles – operating hours, distance traveled and type of aircraft moved – present exciting opportunities for process optimization. With the help of such a broad database, processes can be fine-tuned for maximum efficiency and sustainability. This goes hand in hand with the increasingly relevant subject of predictive maintenance.

For all the negative effects of the Corona pandemic last year, do you think it will spur significant changes in the long term?

Yes, I think that will be the case. Much more careful thought is already being given to the use of resources, for example. This has a doubly positive effect: Work is being performed more economically and the environment protected at the same time. There have also been changes in fundamental values and attitudes. Decisions are now being queried much more frequently and in greater detail. Every procurement and every process is being given more critical scrutiny and examined for potential improvements. At the same time, the people involved – from the decision-makers to the people on the apron – have become more sensitive to these issues.

So when it comes to investing in new GSE equipment, there can be no excuses any more. Such aspects as sustainability, quality and forward-looking technologies are going to play a much greater role in future purchasing decisions than was the case in the past. Finally, however strong the determination to innovate, I would warn all companies in the industry against blind activism: Not every new technology is suitable in every situation, and not all processes are easy to implement everywhere. You have to focus on your strengths and invest wisely. More than ever before the truism applies: A euro earned is worth more than a euro saved.

Cargo / pushback tractors
Conventional tractors
»Bison« E Family
towbarless tractors