Can aerospace capitalize on digital transformation?

Could digital do to the aerospace sector what it has done to the music and taxi industries?

“Digital transformation is a critical challenge,” Manfred Hader, a senior partner with global consultancy Roland Berger, told the recent Canadian Aerospace Summit, an event hosted by the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada in Ottawa. “In other industries, structures have been changed completely. The real question is: how will our industry fare?”

Digital, he said, is a combination of mindset and technologies that have the potential to disrupt and alter a sector’s entire ecosystem. And aerospace is at a crossroads between a fairly traditional mindset and a digital revolution. “It is not clear what will be the end game,” he said.

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Hader’s remarks provided the backdrop for an industry panel discussion on encouraging and supporting greater innovation in the Canadian sector. Arvind Gupta, a professor at the University of Toronto and the panel moderator, noted that global civil aviation is estimated to require almost $6 trillion in new equipment over the next 20 years, an astounding number that could climb to around $10 trillion if military requirements are included.

“How do you create the eco-system that gives [Canada] a winning position to grab a significant share of this market?” he posed.

Competition will be fierce. For Canada to weather the challenge from established and emerging markets, many of which are prepared to invest significantly to create their own vibrant sectors, innovation will need to be at the centre of any industrial strategy.

“We have no choice, we are compelled to continue to innovate,” said Marc St. Hilaire, chief technology officer with CAE.

But innovation can’t depend on random acts of government largess. AIAC has been a contributor to the federal government’s recently launched innovation agenda, Positioning Canada to Lead, and the panellist emphasized a more comprehensive strategy for the sector to expand from niche strengths such as landing gear and flight simulators.

“You can’t rely on projects popping up here and there to ensure that major new game-changing technologies are addressed properly and can be exploited in a timely manner,” said Denis Faubert, president and CEO of the Consortium for Aerospace Research and Innovation in Canada. “How do we come up with…key S&T drivers around which we can focus our entire community?”

Lee Obst, managing director of Rockwell Collins Canada and chair of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada’s innovation and technology committee, suggested the entire sector–industry, government, academia, research laboratories–“[has] to figure out how to collaborate better with ourselves.”

Existing government programs can help businesses develop and mature technology, but they only go so far. Ultimately, entrepreneurs need an environment in which they are “not afraid to fail,” he said.

AIAC’s recommendations have focused primarily on government policy “because policy sets the agenda,” Obst explained. Government creates the eco-systems, regulations, and certification channels to influence innovation, and can be the all-important first customer.

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Mike Greenley, president of L-3 Wescam and a former executive with CAE and General Dynamics Mission Systems, also emphasized the importance of government as a first buyer of emerging products and a critical supporter of their export potential. L-3 Wescam exports 98 per cent of its multi-spectral and multi-sensor imaging and targeting systems, which are on 134 aircraft types globally.

But he cautioned against equating innovation with the novel, arguing that government and foreign investment from military sales should also be directed at improving or enhancing established product lines.

The language of some RFPs, he said, “almost [disadvantages] Canadian firms to the distraction of foreign direct investment…I would like to see both of those weighted equally: the sustainment and enhancement of established capacity and the welcoming of new capacity into the country.”

As much as data analytics, deep learning and additive manufacturing threaten to disrupt the sector, their arrival coincides with a large re-capitalization of the Canadian Armed Forces. St. Hilaire sees that as an opportunity to make smart decisions about Canadian technology and where to concentrate industry effort. “Let’s make the right choices going forward,” he said. “Let’s make sure we don’t miss out…and get out-innovated by other countries.”

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