Interview with aerospace professional Eric Gibbons: Lookback at 2020 and digital outlook on 2021

For the aviation and aerospace industry 2020 has been an unprecedented year due to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. For illustration, according to Eurocontrol data the 7 day rolling average traffic over Europe in the last week of 2020 was at only 27% in comparison with the same period of 2019. Looking back at 2020 not only from the perspective of Covid-19 impacts but also discussing the present and future of digital in aerospace and larger industrial contexts, it is my pleasure to have Eric Gibbons as a guest now at the very beginning of 2021. Currently busy with digital innovation and digital transformation, Eric’s career spans many different domains in aerospace and aviation: early conceptual design of airliners, systems development, aircraft manufacturing, training simulations and in-service digital data management. He has as well experience in the fiber optics industry, working on advanced fiber-optic lasers.

Juraj Zamecnik: In 2019 and previous years digital and everything connected to it was in the driving seat of engineering and industrial strategies of aerospace companies around the world who saw digital as the key enabler to improved efficiency in order to compete in a highly tense market. Did digital manage to keep its place during 2020 and what are the outlooks for 2021?

Also, with significantly reduced workloads, many employees are available to contribute to digital developments, whereas before everyone was always 150% busy with daily tasks and had little time to guide the development of new digital tools.

So digital projects are still going strong, perhaps even stronger than before.

JZ: We talked together in autumn 2019 at 3IPK Blockchain & Industry 4.0 Forum in Bratislava about the role of blockchain and its possible applications in the aerospace industry. Do you still believe that blockchain as technology has its place in aerospace and what are in your view the hottest areas for implementation?

The system works on a “Trust but Verify” basis, and it generally works well. But today it is only a little bit of Trust and a lot of Verify. A lot of phone calls, emails, spreadsheets to figure out the configuration of an aircraft, can it be dispatched, what are the next maintenance tasks, what parts are required…

I believe that we can move the cursor a bit more towards the ‘Trust’ side if we can share information more smoothly, and give confidence that it is reliable. The huge amount of time wasted on repetitive administrative tasks can be significantly reduced. Distributed ledgers or blockchain have a role to play in this.

On the other hand, blockchain does not exist on its own, it only makes sense as a part of a wider “digital ecosystem” into which most relevant actors of the aircraft lifecycle have bought in, and actively contribute.

JZ: What are the main challenges and opportunities that you personally see when it comes to digital transformation in aerospace but also wider manufacturing industries?

Most current organizations in aerospace (or other industries) have been established with historically clear roles in the aircraft lifecycle, centered around their own specialized mountain of data of which only a small portion is shared. As information exchanges become more fluid and cheap, these historic organization interfaces will become much more fuzzy and dynamic. We already see OEMs interested in providing services for flight ops or maintenance, or airlines involved in new aircraft conceptual design. But to really make this jump to a new business model, the historic companies need to embrace this new way of life, and realign their corporate strategies, priorities, investments….so you need a dramatic shift in thinking at top management levels. That’s not easy.

You also want more interaction between the people actually building, flying and maintaining the aircraft (and using a number of digital apps to do so) and the people who design the aircraft or the associated digital applications. This is very different from the historic way of working which is very sequential: the engineers design, and the rest makes do with whatever comes out of that design process. Now you need the people in production lines, maintenance hangars etc… to learn to speak and learn that their voice has value, while engineers need to learn to listen. Again, not easy.

A further challenge, as we’ve touched on before, is that the industry is a huge complex system, so no single technological innovation will exist on its own. The whole system needs to evolve in small, coordinated steps. So, we really need to establish common standards and forums through which new ideas can be introduced.

On the positive side, there is a lot of potential to streamline operations, be it design, production, flight, maintenance or general ownership of aircraft. As we discussed, all this involves huge volumes of information. Making it easier to quickly and intuitively process and share information opens a huge potential for improvements: reduced lead-times and cost for the initial development of a new type, faster production at lower costs and higher quality, better planning of airline networks, improved management of disruptions due to technical issues, traffic, weather….

Last but not least, digital transformation may be a key to a more sustainable industry. Having common data shared all along the lifecycle is critical to enable us to monitor and reduce energy consumption, emissions, noise…while improving the experience for passengers, especially those with specific needs (low mobility….).

JZ: Is there a difference in approaches to digital transformation in Europe, the US, Middle East or China?

It may be easier in some cultures for engineers to discuss with maintenance people, whereas in others there may be still some sense of hierarchical separation between these populations. Some cultures are more focused on financial aspects, geared towards short-term returns, whereas others may more easily understand that many things in life require patience and a long-term perspective. In areas where labor costs are very high, there may be enthusiasm for automation, whereas elsewhere the cost of subscribing to some new digital solution far outweighs the cost of having an army of people doing the job manually.

And a very down-to-earth constraint is that digital technologies rely on reliable electrical power and reliable data networks. Those things are not reliably available everywhere where aircraft may operate. Or simply, mechanics working on a ramp in areas with harsh climates (wet, cold…) may prefer to rely on the proven pencil and paper rather than fragile electronic devices.

There is no 1-app-fits-all approach. But maybe that’s the whole point of digital tech anyway: to be easily tailored to the needs of each user.

JZ: To conclude, when do you think we will be able to board a full zero-emission aircraft for which there’s a full digital twin?

And on top of that, having one single zero-emission aircraft with a digital twin is a great start, but useless in itself. Both these things only make sense if they are applied to a large set of aircraft making up a significant portion of the in-service fleet.

But what’s more interesting to me in your question is that you, correctly, link a zero-emission aircraft and a full digital twin. To me these 2 topics are tightly coupled: to enable zero-emissions we need a clear, harmonized view of how the aircraft is designed, built, flown, maintained and modified over its lifecycle, and how all these activities result in emissions of all types. Hence we need a full digital twin….but to incentivize all the numerous stakeholders to converge and work together on such a twin, it seems to me that a zero-emission aircraft — and the societal pressure it answers to — is the only realistic motivation.

In any case, we have lots of work to last at least a generation!

3IPK develops blockchain-based solutions automating certification, supply chain and maintenance of processes for aerospace, defence & other consumer goods.

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