You’ve got to try before you fly

In its development of the future of flight, Airbus wants to bring new products to market much quicker than has been traditional in the aerospace sector. Central to this is the ‘Demonstrator’ programme, headed by Mark Cousin, who explains here how it is helping the company to become a transformational force.

Tell us about the concept behind the ‘Demonstrator’ programme.

The idea of using Demonstrators is to drive the development of technology much more quickly than traditional methods of technology development that use the so-called TRL (Technology Readiness Levels) process. The old process could easily take five years to get to TRL 6, which is the level of maturity you would require to start testing something. The objective here is to go much quicker.

We’re looking to set ourselves challenging goals — with two or three year timescales — that drive the development of the technology needed to make them fly, rather than the other way around. What tends to happen is that we develop technology at a pace, which is driven by the process, and then when it’s ready we put it on a Demonstrator.

To be honest, this is not really new. If you look at the way NASA was developing technology in the 50s and 60s with X-planes and so on, that was exactly how it was being done. They would say, ‘okay, we’re going to design a plane to go supersonic’. Then you develop the technology or you mature the technology that you need to make that work in a given timescale, rather than waiting for the technology to go supersonic to be ready before you build the vehicle. That’s really the goal of the demonstrators.

Much has been made of the notion behind Exponential Organisations (ExO), can you explain how this applies to the Demonstrator programme?

This is a principle based around a book, about the characteristics shared by organisations that have proved successful in growing and scaling their activity dramatically in a short space of time*. So achieving exceptional things in very short spaces of time.

These organisations all share some characteristics but the fundamental one is what they call a ‘massive transformational purpose’. All of them have that ‘put a man on the moon’ or ‘take an aircraft supersonic’-type objective, which is transformational or will change the world.

The example we have is the CityAirbus, a four-seat, electric, air taxi capable of transporting people over relatively short distances but with low noise levels and at the same price as a private-hire car.  Why wouldn’t you take that from central London to Heathrow Airport rather than staying in a traffic jam to get there in a cab?


Concept drawing of CityAirbus – a 4 seater, piloted VTOL urban air mobility (UAM) aircraft reaching Demonstrator in 2018

These are the sort of things that we’re trying to apply. The fundamentals of the ExO organisation are flexibility, agility, willingness to experiment, to try things out and fail, but, ultimately, find the solution to the problems.

How do you get to Demonstrator stage?

We’re in the process of developing a comprehensive roadmap process. All of the technology areas that Airbus is interested in, are or will be covered by a roadmap. Each roadmap details where we want to go, what sort of timescales we think we can achieve in certain areas and what our priorities are.

We then pick a particular area of interest within the roadmaps and build a Demonstrator proposal. We use that Demonstrator to push the technology or pull that technology in that area faster than it would otherwise develop naturally.

It doesn’t even need to be a vehicle, for instance. Some of our Demonstrators might be a process within our design process. For example, we’re running one process-based Demonstrator, Continuity, around the development of future project lifecycle management (PLM) and manufacturing engineering systems (MES). This maybe a bit less sexy than the one where we say, ‘we’re going to fly a four-seat ‘Octocopter’ in two years’ time’, but in principle the process is the same; we’re trying to demonstrate in a short timescale the viability of the technology behind the idea.

How do you balance ambition with practicality?

Essentially, the idea with the Demonstrator is to set a very challenging, but achievable objective. There’s no point in saying we’re going to design something we know is impossible but, on the other hand, we have to set targets that many people in the company would think were crazy — or would think were not possible — otherwise they’re not challenging enough!

Does a Demonstrator have to be successful – what happens if it ends in failure?

If we run a Demonstrator in a particular area, which doesn’t succeed, then that’s not necessarily a failure. It has value in demonstrating the technology in that area isn’t mature or cannot be matured as quickly as we’d hoped. In that sense, we still learn something from a Demonstrator that doesn’t achieve its objectives.

Can you give some examples of current Demonstrators you are working on?

Probably some of the most challenging Demonstrators that we currently have are two urban air mobility Demonstrators – CityAirbus, which is an all-electric, four-seat, two-tonne air taxi that we intend to fly by the end of 2018 and Vahana, a single person, fully automated UAM vehicle that is being worked on by our colleagues at A^3, with its  alpha flight planned for this year. Also the E-Fan X, which is a Demonstrator that supersedes the E-Fan 2.0 and will see us fly a two-megawatt-sized electric motor and hybrid system by the end of 2019.  These are extremely challenging projects for which some of the technology either doesn’t exist or is not yet mature enough.

Vahana – a single-person/cargo automated VTOL UAM aircraft. Alpha flight scheduled for 2017

How do you evaluate the progress of a Demonstrator?

Demonstrators remain under continual review. We have to be ready to stop those that are no longer aligned with our roadmaps — or are not delivering —rather than continuing to put money in until it’s finished. As I said, we’ve just stopped a Demonstrator called the E-Fan 2.0, which was a small two-seat, all-electric training aircraft. It was a successful Demonstrator project and is the model for the way we are running Demonstrators, but was no longer aligned with our roadmap for the future.  We’re replacing that now with a much more ambitious project to demonstrate motors that are in the 2 megawatt class.

Presumably this fits with the “ExO” approach to taking risk when driving innovation?

Part of the objective of the Demonstrator programme is to ‘retire risks’. What we want to do is demonstrate that either we have a solution, which removes a particular risk, or that a particular risk is real and will stop us achieving a particular objective.

The Demonstrator is a means of either eliminating risk early i.e. before we start product development rather than waiting until we’re trying to develop a product to discover that we have a risk that we can’t solve. It is about risk taking and that’s why we say that not all of the demonstrators will succeed. And, anyway, if all of the demonstrators succeeded we wouldn’t be taking enough risk!

Who do you look for when you recruit someone to work on a Demonstrator project?

There are a couple of things that we’re trying to deploy on the Demonstrators in terms of recruiting people. The first one is recruiting a Demonstrator leader. We need to find someone who is passionate about the subject and believes in the objective — believes that what many people think is impossible, is possible.

Second is that the Demonstrator organisation doesn’t have any permanent staff other than myself and the Demonstrator leaders. Everybody else who is part of a Demonstrator team will be either seconded into the team from somewhere else in Airbus, or employed from the outside on a short-term contract.

Demonstrators, by their nature being two to three years in length, are not a job for life. They bring a relatively small number of key, motivated individuals together for a two- or three-year period to realise a project and then those people will go their separate ways. It’s not a permanent organisation.

How does it feel to work in such a challenging environment?

Probably the best example of what can be achieved when hugely challenging targets are set is the target that Kennedy set in the 60s when he said by the end of the decade we will put a man on the moon. Most people thought it was crazy, most people thought it was impossible, but it was achieved because it put everybody behind a single objective and developed technology that didn’t exist when that statement was made.

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* In his book Exponential Organizations, Salim Ismail argues that today’s companies are set up for a linear world that is “hierarchical, centralised, closed, top down and focused on ownership due to scarcity of people, resources, assets and platforms.”

Such companies are rooted in a past in which economies of scale, relative stability and predictability were the foundations of commerce. The future for organisations of all kinds, however,  will be one in which they are organised to meet massive change, according to Ismail, who says: “Our environment is changing exponentially, mainly driven by exponential technologies and globalisation. As a result, the world is becoming increasingly open and transparent and we are slowly moving from a world of scarcity to a world of abundance.”

Exponential Organisations (ExOs), according to Ismail are defined by their risk taking, experimentation, autonomous team structures that emphasise collaborative working practices and the fact that they are hugely scalable: “The basic metric that we have established is that ExOs scale at a minimum 10x better than their peers in the same space.”

As an example, he says the typical Consumer Packaged Goods company takes about 300 days to go from a new idea to a product on a Walmart shelf. Quirky, a leading ExO, takes a new idea to product on a Walmart shelf in 29 days. “And that’s in an old industry, not some newfangled internet-software-freemium-social-gaming play,” Ismail says.