A systematic approach to the elusive challenge of managing innovation may be paying dividends at Safran, where the establishment two years ago of a scientific advisory council of leading academics has helped bring technologies such as fractal mathematics to marketable products.
Eric Bachelet, executive vice-president for research and technology and the main link between the seven-member council and Safran, says the initiative has had a "significant impact", for example by "drawing our attention to the possibility of designing cold-atom gyrometric systems, an area currently at the cutting edge of solid-state physics".
Other engineering companies have such councils, says Bachelet, but he believes Safran is more involved with the academics. "We ask more of them," he says. "We have made it [the council] an academic tool."
Bachelet describes his role as one of helping the council members to intervene at Safran on their own initiative. The relationship, he adds, is inspiring for Safran's engineers, who typically have academic roots similar to the council members', and also for the academics, who like to be involved in "real-life" projects.
Working with university-based researchers is becoming more important as product performance requirements get more complex, says Bachelet. Safran, he notes, is a large group but still cannot maintain enough laboratory capability to do basic research, and there are today so many valuable avenues of research that it is "indispensible" to the company to have a view on how to take advantage - reasonably quickly - of developments in fields ranging from mathematics to physics, automation and materials.
The council certainly helps speed the movement of new technology from the laboratory to practical applications, says Bachelet. Council members' expertise also helps Safran to find the best scientific partnerships for particular programmes, and helps the company to manage its wider network of experts.
At present, the council is headed by French physicist Mathias Fink, who took over after the death of Georges Charpak in 2010. An eighth member is being recruited and Bachelet hopes to make the group more international.