Enders: Airframers need radical overhaul to evolve

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Airbus chief Tom Enders has stressed that commercial aircraft manufacturing needs to consider a radical overhaul in order to take greater risks and develop new products more swiftly.

He floated the possibility of ending the "traditional" serial launch of completely new aircraft and instead switching to an "upgradable platform approach", enabling airframers to "rapidly and significantly evolve" aircraft as new technology emerged.

Enders suggested the concept of "plug and play" aircraft which could respond more quickly to customer demand.

"If we were able to just accelerate bringing in new cabin features, that would already be quite some progress," he said, in a speech to the SAE Aerotech conference in Toulouse on 18 October.

Enders contrasted the decade-long development cycles in commercial aviation with the far more rapid changes in the information technology industry.

"We've reached a point where iPads are changing the way pilots want to interact with the aircraft," he said. "But we don't have them in the cockpit.

"We lose time and money planning for spare parts, like processors, which will be out of production before the [aircraft] are even halfway through their expected lifespan."

The impact of technology is "starting to dictate" what people expect from the aviation industry, Enders stressed: "And we can't ignore that."

"Our problem is not the market or lack of growth," he said. "Our problem is delivery. While the world is fighting off an economic downturn [the original equipment manufacturers are] leaking money, left, right and centre on new programmes.

"Our inability to master innovation is undermining the confidence of investors, shareholders and customers."

While investors appreciated the "minimum change" approach - as demonstrated by the decision to re-engine the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 - this "cannot be our response forever", said Enders.

"If we are too risk-averse, new competitors will overtake us sooner rather than later," he added. "And if we take too many risks, we will end up with pretty much the same result.

"If we want to find the step-change this industry needsthen we need a real overhaul of the way we work. Not as individual companies, but as an industry."

Enders said there needed to be a focus on the "right mix" of innovation management, technical knowledge and efficient processes.

Development and certification cycles needed to shorten because customers "will not keep accepting lead times of eight to 10 years". He also warned that a solid skills base was essential but that there was a "real shortage of talent" from traditional sources, and Enders defended the use of outsourcing for replenishment.

"We need to stop seeing emerging markets purely as a threat or a way to do things on the cheap," he said. "We need to start bringing the intellectual, engineering resource of these countries into our fold."

Enders said: "Somewhere in the last 40 years we learned to save fuel and forgot how to take risks and mange them properly. We forgot how to turn our ideas into reality before they were out of date."