Saturday, 7 January 2012

Is there a lack of innovation in the aviation industry?

Ready to take another leap?

The other day a tweet from aviation social media expert Shashank, from Simpliflying caught my attention, it contained a quote from Splatf, a tehcnology blog that I also follow, it stated "The airplane industry needs its iPhone".

If you go to the article in question you will see what this means: there has been little radical innovation in the aircraft industry in the last few decades, with the two main manufacturers (plus some smaller ones) basically delivering incremental improvements of aircraft types that, in their basic form, have been in service for a really long time. The first Boeing 737 first flew in 1967!

Of course, the Boeing 737s that are being built today are superior in many ways to those earlier versions, but it could be argued that they are not "revolutionarily different". There has not been a leap as significant as the one that, for example, the Boeing 707 represented over the previous piston-engined planes!

This is not the only voice I hear recently warning that the rate of technological innovation has slowed downed over the last few decades, not only in aviation but in other industries too.

You could say the composite materials that make most of the recently released Boeing 787 Dreamliner certainly qualify as an important innovation, but, despite all these improvements, which I, as an aviation enthusiast, appreciate, might be far from evident to the average airline passenger and, to the non-expert eye, a Boeing 787 looks unremarkably similar to a 1970s airliner. 

A number of revolutionary concepts have been put forward in the last few years but the chances of them becoming a relity in the foreseeable future are, a priory, very slim. And it is understandable why: developing a new generation of airliners is such a complex, risky and capital-intensive task (we have got a taste of what this means with the A380 and Boeing 787 production delays) that it is no wonder that Boeing and Airbus prefer to squeeze further all improvements they can from their existing aircraft portfolio, and this is why we have the Airbus 320 Neo and the Boeing 737 Max, which I am sure are superb airplanes, but delivering just marginal improvements over the current family of aircraft. 

Plus, why would you create an entirely new aircraft that renders most of your client's fleets obsolete in one go when you have a comfortable hold of this market? remember what happen when the Royal Navy introduced the first Dreadnought? Almost all its fleet became obsolete overnight and startup navies (Germany) spotted the chance to catch up fast.

Well, they risk being disrupted, such as Nokia got disrupted by Apple. and any such breakthrough is likely to come from outsiders...Will it be mass-market hypersonic flight? or the flying car?

Source: Wikipedia

Who knows? definition, breakthroughs are impossible to predict...

What do you think? Where is aviation's next big leap going to come from?


Shashank said...

Great thoughts here. While both Boeing and Airbus are making incremental improvements through the Neo and the Max, after visiting the Bombardier CSeries cabin mockup at the Dubai Airshow late last year, I feel they might be on to something here, with a lot of "world's firsts"...

Allplane: all about aviation, airlines and air travel said...

Really looking forward to experience the new CSeries as well as the new Dreamliner, planes might not be getting faster but looks like passenger experience will really be improving (even for thsoe in economy!)

Pablo Roux said...

Of course, one can say that cell phones has better navigation capability than a 737/320....
Innovation requirements to fulfill operational improvements should come from the aircraft operators. I do think strong leadership is needed too - the Europena Union is a natural leader but of course the world is larger( Perhaps, you know about SESAR and NextGen). Industry's role is to cost-effectively satisfy these requirements at a competitive price. Therefore, it is not about who leads the change, it is rather about a healthy positioning of the Airport Operators, and Airlines to articulate their needs and the industry responding to them.
The problem facing any major technology change is “uncertainty”. Altough, in the present economic climate, aircraft operators are all trying to find their own niche and are seeking quick wins ‘flexibility’ and ‘efficiencies’

Allplane: all about aviation, airlines and air travel said...

Pablo, regarding the navigation capability of an iPhone compared to an airliner, I suggest also this article from well-known technology entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky and here a similar article from the same author in Spanish

Joshua Ahyong said...

I read about this kind of business strategy in school regarding innovation. Companies would rather innovate quickly but update SLOWLY. They would only release new features to their products little by little because it's a good way to entice consumers to keep on coming back for the product. You're right about saying that they shouldn't come up with something entirely new all at once because they'd have to replace their entire fleet. It's both a revenue maximizing and cost cutting strategy and it keeps the company edgy every year as well. One thing is that I'd like to see more manufacturers come into the picture. A life with just Boeing and Airbus is too plain.

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