[Avionics Today 06-29-2015] The aeronautical industry needs to be bolder, and start embracing the possibility of failures or risk associated with new technologies before they reach the market, says Tom Enders, CEO of Airbus Group. During his keynote speech at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Aviation 2015 conference, the Airbus chief executive outlined several initiatives that his company is currently undergoing and looked to other industries, such as commercial Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), as providing the type of pioneering and innovative spirit that he'd like to see reflected more within the commercial aviation environment.
Airbus Group CEO Tom Enders. Photo: AIAA
According to Enders, failing to embrace a "fail early, fail often" mindset could prevent the global industry from providing the type of innovation that he believes it is capable of, but is not currently achieving. While he acknowledged that the industry is moving at a rapid pace, noting new aircraft features on the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 787, he believes the industry currently features too much of a risk averse nature where companies are being led by government red-tape, rather than shaping new opportunities for the future.
"If this industry wants to avoid its own 'Kodak Moment,' we must balance incremental progress... lower risk, solid and steady performance, which is obviously good for profits and shareholder value—we must balance that with true disruption," said Enders.
One of Enders' biggest points was that commercial aviation companies need to be more willing to innovate quickly rather than taking years to make small changes in products. Despite the incredible level of technology featured on the industry's latest two airliners, with touch screens cockpit displays, connectivity and even cockpit video conferencing among the features on the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 787, Enders feels the pace of innovation could be pushed further. He called the A350 and 787 "game changers," but also pointed out that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk characterized "spending $20 billion to improve aircraft performance by 10 percent” as being “lame."
He also referenced the same Airbus-Boeing duopoly that his colleague John Leahy recently analyzed
during the Airbus Innovation Days event, and suggested that disruption might not come from an airframe manufacturer player based outside of the U.S. or Europe, but possibly from an entirely different industry. Enders then called attention to the success of Silicon Valley-based commercial UAS startup AirWare, which recently released their commercial UAS operating system with the backing of investors such as Intel. Airware has also already confirmed General Electric (GE) as its first large enterprise customer.
"By making it affordable they are democratizing the market," said Enders. "Not just by making the technology affordable. But by decoupling the clever bits from the airframe: the operating systems, autonomy, control laws and so on, which means they can be used with any platform."
However, Enders doesn't believe the traditional commercial airframe manufacturing giants are going anywhere any time soon, as he estimates airlines will need nearly 30,000 new fuel efficient aircraft over the next two decades "to stay competitive."
Also, he told the AIAA 2015 crowd how Airbus is innovating in three different ways. Firstly, the French manufacturer has created "protospaces" on its largest engineering campuses giving engineering teams 100 days to "crack problems and create prototypes. Airbus also has its "BizLab accelerators" initiative, which aims to reduce the amount of time required to commercialize in-house innovations or those from external start-ups.
Secondly, Airbus is also expanding its academic partnerships, primarily by joining the Virginia Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing and by aiming to "re-invigorate" industrial-academic partnerships throughout the global aviation industry. Finally, Enders said the company has set up "venture capital and disruptive innovation teams" in Silicon Valley where they've brought in experts from Andreessen Horowitz and Google. But he promises that Airbus has a focus outside of just drawing upon the innovation coming out of California's technological innovation hub.
"This isn’t about getting down with the kids in California," said Enders. "It’s about being more efficient, more productive and more competitive. Innovating where it adds real value for our business and first and foremost, of course, for our customers. Disrupting this industry the way we want it to happen."