A View from the Aerospace Industry: Patience, Persistence and a List of “New Normals”Interview conducted in August 2020
R is a veteran of the aerospace industry. With more than two decades of experience as an engineer with a large original equipment manufacturer (OEM), he situates the disruptions brought by the COVID-19 pandemic within the larger context of other downturns and provides valuable perspectives on which changes may be passing, and which are likely here to stay.
SAE: Let’s say it’s New Year’s Day 2020. We have the whole decade is in front of us. Maybe we heard about a virus that's spreading, but we had no idea how it might affect us and our businesses. How would you have described your personal and professional goals at the beginning of this year?
R.: I wanted to move the ball forward in terms of technologies. Digitization of standards data and process specifications are very important as we shift to the model-based engineering.
SAE: Have those goals now changed?
R.: Obviously, there’s been a major impact on the entire aerospace industry and particularly on commercial aviation. Air travel went to almost zero. It’s very reminiscent of the period after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, except that this seems more prolonged. Getting people confident enough to go back on airplanes depends on a vaccine.
You start rethinking priorities, making sure that you're doing things that essentially “keep the wheels on the bus.” You still try to maintain other goals, like quality improvement and cost savings. Those are still going to be critical to climb out of this hole that the virus has put us in.
SAE: Tell us a little more about the short- and long-term changes in your field.
R.: Short-term are mitigation efforts: cleaning and disinfecting to reduce spread of the virus on an airplane. Many resources have been moved in that direction just to keep the airline industry afloat. Then there’s facing the fact that the bottom has dropped out of the demand for airplanes. Even as the flying public starts to come back, the airlines are going to be relying on parked airplanes for, I'm guessing, a couple of years.
I'm sure there are some things that are never going to be exactly the way they were a year ago. You're going to see people flying with masks, airlines doing disinfection between flights, and a lot of other new normals.
SAE: You have the benefit of many years of perspective. How would you categorize this disruption versus others you’ve experienced?
R.: I'll take two historic disruptions. One was the Supersonic Transport (SST) demise back in the 1970s, when there were predictions that some companies would end. I don't think it's quite that bad, but I do think it's worse than 9/11. With 9/11 it was: "Okay, let's come up with some security measures that will keep people from taking over airplanes or getting weapons onto airplanes." The focus was on airport security and on things like cockpit doors. Those adoptions brought the public back.
I believe that COVID 19 will linger in the public’s mind much longer. Even when this virus has been mitigated, people are still going to be thinking: "Well, what about the next one?" And that's something that I don't think we had after 9/11.
SAE: What new skills or experiences do you think you’ll need?
R.: The world is going virtual. For me that’s the biggest adaptation. Our chief mechanic in product development actually just livestreamed equipment testing from Gatwick Airport in the UK. Before COVID-19, I would have been there in person.
SAE: Are you seeing more widespread adaptation of automation in factories? Is it technologies that remove humans from the manufacturing center?
R.: I've noticed that while many other types of projects have declined or not accelerated during this period, those haven't. They are still going strong, and in some cases, even possibly picked up.
SAE: What do you think SAE should be doing to help?
R.: Continue its plans to digitize standards data. With model-based engineering, we take standards information and place it directly into the design and manufacturing plans. That removes a lot of the steps associated with the PDF or even XML format.
SAE: Prior to the pandemic we were increasingly involved in automated flight, urban air mobility: cutting edge stuff. Do you think those new kinds of initiatives will still receive attention?
R.: From a personal transportation perspective, those are going to be more popular. I heard an interesting comment from somebody recently: As things get back more to normal, who's going to want to get on large passenger airplane with all of those other people? There might be that one super spreader and 400 people get off the airplane and half of them are infected. There's going to be a big emphasis on smaller and more personal vehicles: air taxis and the automated air taxis. You're not sharing your vehicle with a bunch of people; you don't even have a driver to worry about. You can just get into this thing and it takes you where you need to go.
SAE: How do you think these changes will affect professionals just starting out in this industry?
R.: In-person collaboration is really important to learning. I am very much a graphical learner. You can give me a book, sure I can read it and I'll learn from it, but if you can show it to me or I can hold it in my hands, I’ll learn much more quickly. And I know a lot of folks that are kind of in that same boat. If I can walk a new engineer out to the production line and show him or her where the assembly or part or system that they're involved with is on the actual airplane, they gain a new understanding. It's really hard to do those kinds of things virtually.
SAE: What is the most important thing you would want us to take away from this conversation here today?
R.: Two things have served me well in my career: patience and persistence. Nothing is going to happen the way you think it will. But, if you have patience and you're persistent, I think all of these things are eventually going to pass and we're going to be able to adapt and deal with whatever we need to, as long as you can hold those two traits close.
I do think that there will be a new normal two years from now, different than what we had two years ago. Virtual is going to be much greater, automation is going to be much more prevalent, and practices like model-based systems engineering are going to be at the forefront. I think that the companies and the organizations that adapt those more quickly are going to be more successful.
My advice to SAE is: Keep on your path toward the digital world and get away from our 100-year-old document-based standards to serve the digital and automated world that we're talking about.