Airbus stepping up innovation

A homogeneous group
Bregier led the work in unifying Airbus as COO, working for the then-CEO Tom Enders. After 2007-2012, having achieved a unified and effective company by clamping down on own ideas and initiatives and urging a unified organization (the Power8 programs), Bregier realized that this could not be a long-time state.

Around 2013 he started talking about giving the individual departments and projects more freedom to take own decision and he pointed out the value of innovation and creativity. But there was not much to show behind the words at the time.

The A350 had to be brought to market and except for a Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic (CFRP)-based structure (which was more or less forced on a risk averse Airbus by the market and Boeing’s innovative use of this in the 787), there was nothing really new in the aircraft.

Innovations and developments that had been done for the A380 were carried over in refined forms but nothing really new were introduced aerodynamically or on the systems side. At the time of the discussion last year, I pointed that out. Bregier did not agree but had trouble to point to anything that could be classified as innovative.

Last week’s annual Airbus Innovation Days in Hamburg demonstrated how the picture has changed. When these Days previously were more or less product updates, it was now a virtual fireworks of innovation initiatives and engagements for a changing mindset.

Numerous projects and initiatives had been started both at the Commercial aircraft unit (Bregier’s responsibility) and at group level (Airbus had in the meantime renamed itself Airbus Group from EADS, with Tom Enders as group CEO).

On group level, Airbus was more active than ever. Enders had inaugurated Airbus Innovations, a global research and technology network and also established a Startup support program call Airbus Bizlabs. This helps companies to get ideas to market faster. Bizlab centers are presently established in Toulouse, Hamburg and Bangalore.

Airbus’ US arm and its Defense and Space division have also stepped in as technology consultants for the Aerion Supersonic Bizjet project out of Reno (AZ), Figure 2.


Figure 2. Aerion Business Jet capable of flying at M1.6 over the Oceans. Source: Aerion.

The reason was that this project had developed unique supersonic laminar flow aerodynamics for the wings and tails, lowering drag considerably. By joining the project, Airbus gets access to this technology.

This engagement was initially by the Airbus Americas and the Defense and Space unit, which was low on challenging jobs as the Eurofighter Typhoon fighter project was winding down. Recently the Airbus commercial division also entered the project. The takeaways for Airbus can be major: low drag supersonic flight with a low profile boom belongs to strategic future technologies.

Enders had also started pioneering projects with electrical aircraft. An electrical E-Fan prototype, Figure 3, flew over the English channel on battery stored energy and created a lot of interest.


Figure 2. The Airbus E-Fan prototype, now being further developed into a two-seat trainer. Source: Airbus.

Following on to different E-Fan projects, the commercial unit starting presenting different timescales for hybrid and electrical aircraft, promising an electrical commuter aircraft by 2050.

At the Innovations Days, several further initiatives were presented:

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing with aluminum- and titanium-based structures. Additive manufacturing is nothing new; it has been used for rapid prototyping over the last 20 years. What is new is the size of objects that can be produced and the materials. Metallic parts 2.0m wide, 0.5m deep and 1m high can be produced with the largest 3D printer being developed, Figure 3. The materials that can be sintered with the printer’s powerful lasers are Aluminum and Titanium. Previous rapid prototyping printers could only produce Plastic parts.


Figure 3. Aerosud from South Africa is marketing the presently largest 3D printer for metallic materials. Source: Aerosud.

There are many use cases for the new printers. Due to the building of the part in layers, a more complex shape can be allowed than parts built in a classical way. 3D printing can also be used to produce rare spare parts on demand. It would not be economical to produce such parts with a classical method, requiring that a batch be produced and stores until a customer need arises.

Another innovative project shown was painting of aircraft with a gigantic Ink-Jet printer, Figure 4.


Figure 4. Airbus has developed a gigantic Inkjet Printer to paint the complicated Vertical tailplane pictures the airlines demands. Source: Airbus

Airbus Executive VP of Development, Charles Champion, showcased more innovative developments. He showed that Airbus is finding practical ways to introduce Riblet drag reduction techniques to future aircraft, Figure 5.

Riblet develpments

Figure 5. Implementation path for Riblet drag reduction. Source: Airbus.

Champion also presented the status of the European Open Sky project Blade which will research full scale laminar flow wings as the outer wing parts of a modified A340-300, Figure 6.

Laminar flow project Blade developments

Figure 6. The Clean Sky Blade project will fly next year. Source: Airbus.

In the Blade project, Airbus is researching the application of laminar flow with several other European aircraft industries.

The Americas Cup cooperation with Oracle
Champion also presented the technical cooperation that Airbus has started with the winner of the last years Americas Cup, the Oracle team. The reason for the cooperation is that this advanced type of yachting and flying have moved closer to each other. The boat does not have a sail; it’s driven by a wing, Figure 7, and is riding on hydrofoil planes above the water.

Oracle cooperation

Figure 10. The Arbus and Orcacle Americas Cup cooperation. Source: Airbus.

Normally such sponsorship is about money. Here it is needed technological expertise. The boats produce tough aerodynamic and structural challenges and the Oracle team does not have the expertise or resources to research all areas. The cooperation serves as a challenge for Airbus engineers and lets them work in a fast an innovative environment.

Champion says this is essential to break up the traditional way of thinking and working, which has been the result of years of focusing on getting the A380 and A350 out the door.

It’s a very different Airbus that was shown to the gathered media on the 2016 Innovation Days. The group knows that the large projects of recent years have fostered a knuckled-down, less innovative group. It’s now time to prepare the organization for the many small innovative steps required and then the next big step, the new generation of single aisles that will come around 2025. To stay competitive, a more innovative and agile Airbus is needed.

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