Airbus highlights critical success factors for digital transformation
All images courtesy of Airbus
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Airbus highlights critical success factors for digital transformation

Alara Basul — September 2019
Peter Weckesser, digital transformation officer at the Defence and Space arm of Airbus, describes how the business is becoming truly data-driven.

In an industry that has product lead times averaging 10 years — and manufacturing backlogs to match — digital transformation is no quick fix. So says Peter Weckesser of aerospace giant Airbus, which has been digitally transforming its core activities of design, production and customer service since 2015.

In his keynote speech at the recent Cloudera DataWorks Summit in Barcelona, the digital transformation officer of Airbus Defence and Space shared lessons that the €64 billion ($72 bn) multinational has learnt on its way to becoming a data-driven organization. He also described how it has been building a “digital ecosystem” with its customers and business partners.

Behind any digital transformation, he said, are new ways of thinking and working. “We’ve had to change how we create, design and build,” Weckesser told delegates. This has entailed adopting cutting-edge tech such as machine learning and augmented reality, but it has also required the whole company to change its approach, he stressed. “This is a big extension. We are [progressively] moving from selling very expensive tangible assets to a data-driven business model.”


As that suggests, Airbus’s transformation program is designed to accelerate performance improvements right across the company in the short and medium term. But, ultimately, it is expected to involve the redesign of end-to-end digital operations and the creation of new customer-centric business models and services, the company highlighted in its 2018 Annual Report.
Ten-year challenge

Airbus has high expectations for how the transformation program can benefit its supply chain and cut the “production lifecycle” in half, according to Weckesser. Achieving this goal “will help us to become significantly more efficient and give us a faster time to market. Because of the huge demand for our products, we have a backlog of about 10 years — we simply can’t produce quickly enough.”

The use of so-called digital twins has been key in the effort to hit this ambitious efficiency target. These computer-generated replicas of physical assets enable developers to create and test new features virtually before doing any physical building work.

Weckesser explained: “For each new product we are actually building four digital twins. We not only create a twin for that product; we also create one each for the related production equipment, production process and service process. We simulate all these aspects before we actually start to build the product or the factory to manufacture it. This helps us to significantly reduce our engineering lifecycle and cost in production.”


Airbus also tests and checks for flaws in these virtual models to ensure that the resulting products have the highest levels of safety and reliability — which is, of course, vital to its customers.
Unlocking the power of big data

A crucial aspect of the firm’s digital transformation of its customer services is an open platform called Skywise. Introduced two years ago, this system is designed to enhance the performance of airlines’ operations around the world by collecting and integrating data directly from their aircraft — either in-flight or during on-ground maintenance.

“We apply the data from our real products against the digital models to see where the products might be deviating from expected behaviour,” Weckesser said. The Airbus A350, for instance, has more than 250,000 sensors on board, generating more than 10GB of data for every flight hour. This information has enabled more efficient maintenance interventions, helping customers to improve the productivity of their fleets.

Airbus’s ambition with Skywise is to connect all large aviation businesses in an end-to-end “digital ecosystem.” More than 50 airlines, managing 4,000-plus aircraft, already use the platform and another 50 are expected to adopt it by the end of this year. The next target is the aviation supply chain.

Building on the success of Skywise, Airbus introduced an advanced data analytics system called SmartForce to the defense market in mid-2018. The suite of services that SmartForce offers has been designed, in the words of the company’s annual report, to “enable military operators to exploit data gathered by their aircraft to enhance operational safety, boost mission availability and reduce maintenance support costs. More efficient maintenance is possible by using the wealth of data generated by the new digitally enabled generation of aircraft.”

Meanwhile, Aerial — in effect, an internal start-up business providing data and analysis as a service, according to Weckesser — has started using the company’s satellite and drone network to provide customers with Earth imaging and related data and insights. That includes applying Aerial in cases when a natural disaster has stuck.

Transformational challenges

The process of digital transformation is, of course, never without its difficulties. For instance, mixing private and public clouds is rarely feasible when a lot of the data Airbus uses is classified.

Another challenge is data residency. “Sometimes we have to restrict data to a specific country and ‘national eyes only,’” Weckesser explained, but he added that such issues haven’t hindered the progress that Airbus has been making.

“Aerospace used to be a very conservative industry with very long lifecycles,” he told delegates. “Now it is evolving fast — and our big challenges for growth are all around digitally transforming this company.

Peter Weckesser was a keynote speaker at Cloudera’s DataWorks Summit in Barcelona.

First published September 2019
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