Airbus Exec on Seizing Opportunities Outside the Airplane

By Steven Melendez |  March 14, 2016

For $67 billion aircraft manufacturer Airbus Group, product innovation doesn’t just come from inside the company. It springs from conversations with airline executives, mechanics, pilots, passengers, and suppliers, says Markus Durstewitz, head of innovation methods and tools for Airbus. 

“We have a format we call co-innovation with customers,” he says. “It’s not about ideas — it’s really more about defining the next challenge.” And the challenges that the company, headquartered in Toulouse, France, has explored range from giving pilots easier access to manuals to helping passengers keep track of their luggage.

The company surveys its customers about their needs at least once a year, and holds regular symposia with airlines and suppliers to discuss how different product lines are performing and evolving. Airbus also holds co-innovation workshops with airline customers, to discuss industry trends and possible areas to pursue, Durstewitz says.

“You define some concepts you would like to develop,” he says. “Then, we can decide if we [put a new offering] into our catalog or if we use it as a proprietary solution [for a particular customer].”

One outcome of that type of collaborative innovation is a recent Airbus iPad app for pilots called “FlySmart with Airbus,” which gives those flying the company’s planes access to data and manuals for which they previously used laptop applications, or even pen and paper. The company worked from the beginning with its own test pilots and those at customer airlines to develop the app, Durstewitz says.

The company also explores whether new systems should be manufactured internally or by one of Airbus’s suppliers. So suppliers, too, are brought into the conversation early on in the prototyping stage, he says: “It’s better to do this co-innovation with suppliers from the start, when you go into this prototyping.” Airbus often signs long-term contracts with its suppliers, so it’s important to get details — especially regarding intellectual property rights —correct early on.

Airbus has also been very active in the field of additive layer manufacturing (ALM), sometimes called 3D printing. Today, the company’s first 3D-printed parts are flying, and a larger-scale collaboration began with the opening earlier this year of a dedicated ALM production line at Premium Aerotec in Varel, Germany.

Pull Mode vs. Push Mode

As ideas make their way through the company pipeline, internal “decision boards” periodically make the call about whether to continue with them. But projects generally need the support of an external customer or internal manager — say, a factory plant manager for an improvement to a manufacturing process, or the chief engineer of an aircraft line for a new component — to if they hope to make it into production. Durstewitz says the company looks for technologies that are being “pulled” toward the market by an internal Airbus champion or an outside customer.

“This is the good thing, if you go into what we call the pull mode,” says Durstewitz. “Very often technology is in what we call the push mode — we have this nice new thing, what can we do about it?”

Durstewitz himself is part of a small central innovation team that reports to the company’s chief innovation officer, who in turn reports to Airbus’s CEO. His team shapes the company’s design-thinking-oriented innovation practices and develops and supports software tools like the company’s IdeaSpace platform for internally soliciting ideas and managing the innovation portfolio. And each Airbus site has its own innovation team reporting to a local manager. (Here’s the company’s external-facing innovation website.)

Below are several slides offering an overview of how the innovation program at Airbus explores the desirability, feasibility, and viability of ideas.

Seizing Opportunities Outside the Airplane

Over time, the scope of ideas that the company’s management has been willing to entertain has expanded, from those focused specifically on the company’s planes to other innovations relating to air travel.

“As an aircraft manufacturer, we were [initially] interested in the aircraft only,” Durstewitz says. “Then the shift was, ‘Okay, if we want to continue with growth, then we have to look also at what’s happening in the airport.'”

That’s because the more efficiently planes can load passengers and depart on trips, the more aircraft Airbus will able to sell to its airline customers. And improving the passenger experience from home to destination, Durstewitz says, can help airlines sell more tickets. So a common question in filtering ideas, he says, is, “How can we bring value to the passenger that makes flying more attractive?” 

One concrete example came from conversations with customers about lost luggage — an annoyance to travelers but a cost that adds up for the airlines, which need to find and deliver their lost bags. Airbus worked with T-Systems, Deutsche Telekom’s information technology arm, and luggage maker Rimowa on a prototype electronic tag for better tracking bags.

“We did first prototypes,” Durstewitz says of the project, originally developed as Bag2Go. “We made this thing fly between Toulouse and Hamburg in our own aircraft to see if we can track it.”

The digital tags, which replace traditional paper luggage tags, and can be tracked by a passenger on a smartphones, were a success — the only question was how to commercialize them, Durstewitz says.

“The main money is made by selling the suitcases,” Durstewitz says the companies realized. Airbus is now licensing its portion of the IP rights for what has been rechristened the Rimowa Electronic Tag. It’s slated to launch in March, with initial support from Lufthansa.