Why Airbus shows interest in the maker movement? As a multinational high end technology company, we may think that all aeronautic innovations require very complex processes and so the make it yourself approach does not fit. This is only partially true. Yes, most of the developments have a high degree of complexity. However, this does not implies that the processes that they follow must be complex too. It was only a matter of time that the private sector would realize the wonderful benefits of this movement. Based on the fail fast approach, companies have noticed the importance of prototyping at an early stage of product development in order to anticipate challenges and reduce redesigning costs. Furthermore, technology develops at a very high pace and multinational companies must compete now with flexible and dynamic start-ups which have demonstrated enough maturity to disrupt traditional business models (see Uber or Airbnb). For this reason, multinational companies cannot stand by their rigid processes and have to implement new ways of working to allow them to maintain their competitive advantage over time. There is no doubt that prototyping is one of the available tools multinational companies must implement.
Airbus is aware of this situation and back in 2014 decided to create ProtoSpace. ProtoSpace is a network of maker spaces aiming to foster innovation and “shape” ideas. ProtoS pace started as a start-up concept at risk but in little time its value to the company was demonstrated and the network expanded. Nowadays the network belongs to the CTO organization of Airbus and is composed of 10 labs from India to the US with a special focus in Europe, where the multinational company has its headquarters. ProtoSpace is open to all employees and gives them the means and tools to allow Airbus to become a more agile company thanks to the fast prototyping and the collaborative work.
ProtoSpace is based on three main pillars: agility, technology and prototyping. The first one, agility, aims to promote and implement new ways of working in Airbus to deliver in cost and quality thanks to the implementation of more agile processes in project management. Competition moves fast and Airbus, as a multinational company, must look for alternative ways to accelerate innovative projects. The second pillar is technology. ProtoSpace promotes an early and fast adaptation of new technologies and concepts coming from disciplines transversal to aeronautics. In this way, ProtoSpace actively collaborates with local innovation systems looking for synergies and opportunities. The last but not least important pillar, prototyping, involves not only mechanics and electronics but also software, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and 3D printing, etc. Prototyping acts as an enabler to awake employee’s creativity.
For the last 4 years there have been multiple examples where ProtoSpace has showed its value to Airbus involving different disciplines and approaches. On one hand, ProtoSpace has brought transversal technologies that have not been applied widely before to the company such as augmented reality, bioengineering, emerging materials, artificial intelligence, etc. On the other hand, ProtoSpace has focused is changing the mindset of the company to make it more agile, flexible and dynamic following the start-up basis. In this way, communication and conferences are essential to achieve this goal to train Airbus employees in new agile techniques such as Design Thinking or Sprint methodology as well as spread new horizons for the company by bringing new perspectives through conferences such as the Nobel Prize winner, Konstantine Novoselov, for his work on graphene, or the director of the Center of Bits and Atoms from MIT, Neil Gershenfeld, with whom there is a strong long term collaboration.
Among main successes, ProtoSpace pushed the implementation of an augmented reality strategy in collaboration with Microsoft and Singularity University in such a way that nowadays there is a specific infrastructure around this point named as Holographic Academy.
Furthermore, another important goal is to disrupt the traditional way of working by accelerating the innovation process drastically from idea creation to flight test. For most of Airbus new concepts, this is the classical path to be follow, from the very early sketch up to the demonstration making it fly. As you may guess, this process is very time consuming and nowadays as mentioned before we need more than ever to move fast and implement solutions quickly. If not, others will. Flight test preparation to demonstrate challenges is a meticulous process which is very precise and time consuming. By applying agile project management processes, collaborative work, multidisciplinarity and fast prototyping, the lead time has been reduced from years up to 6 months. This has led to a change of mindset in the company which is now aiming to focus mainly on high value actions and reducing waste. The last two flight tests have been remarkable.
The first one aimed to introduce electroluminescence to the aircraft for mainly advertisement purposes. Airbus cannot be only focus in manufacturing aircrafts, more importantly it needs to sell them and show new features that make airlines choosing them.
The second one, more technical, is part of a European project, Aflonext, mainly focus in flow laminarity. This flight test demonstrated that any part, even the most complex ones, can be easily flown in a short time period. This project implied the manufacturing of complex external fairings highly loaded by using new ways of manufacturing based in the fablab movement, easily accessible to any maker at his/her local fablab.
Fast and low cost not always mean low quality. And corporate fablab concept should spread this mindset worldwide, as happened in Airbus, in order to break this myth by becoming the game changers that any multinational company needs in this new quick changing scenario.