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Tom Enders: Digitalization fuels modern aerospace and aeronautics

Tom Enders, Airbus
Keynote Address
ESMT Annual Forum
June 7, 2018


Thank you very much for this warm welcome. I knew from the agenda that I would be the last of the keynote speakers and I knew with Carsten Spohr would speak before me. Carsten, as you’ve seen, is a great speaker but he always speaks a little bit longer so I condensed… I put my long speech away, Carsten, and condensed it into one page!

First of all, Mr Rocholl, Dieter Zetsche, thank you very much for inviting me, it’s a great pleasure to be here and I would like to commend you for what you have done with ESMT over, what is it now, 15 years, Dieter Zetsche was just giving the latest data on the rankings of ESMT and I’m very much looking forward to, again, cooperating even closer with you in the future.

It’s a pleasure to share this podium here with two distinguished colleagues. Carsten was reminding of their very respectable engineering degrees; I wasn’t sure I should reveal this to you but I only studied Economics, History and Political Science, and yet you can become the CEO of Airbus!


And be invited to talk about technology! I will try my very best here.

By the way, Carsten when he was saying making the world better reminded me of a famous quote of Bill Gates who once said “international aviation was the first worldwide web, connecting people throughout the continents”. I think we both take pride in the fact, also, that we’re here talking about mobility but where this morning is so much dedicated to aviation at the same time.

Technologically speaking, ladies and gentlemen, we’re living in an exciting world. Dieter Zetsche made reference to that, for entrepreneurs, for innovators, we all know certain technologies are currently going, some at least in the Silicon Valley, call exponential. Certainly, the use of data and the exploitation of data is going exponential.

Aerospace and aeronautics and space will particularly benefit from that. Why? Because we are an enormously data-rich industry. Plus, there is the convergence of certain technological trends. Carsten, you’re right, I wouldn’t say digitalisation is not a technology, it’s an enabler, it’s for fuel for these technologies. The convergence, and I think when you mentioned, Dieter, four, three of them are relevant for us as well. Automation and robotics, autonomy, connectivity, machine learning, artificial intelligence, these are all things, electrification, very important, all things that are important for aviation in the future as well. And these are converging and digitalisation is providing the fuel, the boost for this convergence and for this acceleration.

I should also mention new materials and we see that on the latest aircraft, more than 50% carbon fibre materials and other lightweight materials, morphing materials, stuff like that; all that is the stuff for an exciting journey in aerospace.

I have to tell you, a young state secretary here in Berlin was criticised a couple of weeks ago because she had been talking about flying cars. There were plenty of comments in the newspaper ridiculing the state secretary for talking about flying cars as if this would be science fiction far away and not at all realistic. Flying cars are realistic. We’re talking mobility, urban mobility, the ground mobility will soon close with the air mobility. We have urban air mobility today, it’s called helicopter. But, the conventional helicopter is expensive, the conventional helicopter is noisy and I won’t talk about safety but it’s certainly not at the same rate as large commercial aircraft. This is why the use of conventional helicopters is very limited. But, today, with these technologies, particularly autonomy and electrification, we can build flying cars. I was just a couple of days ago in Oregon where we have a test range where we are testing, right now, one of our two projects in this area and it’s very exciting. This one, by the way, was conceptualised and implemented so far by our innovation centre in Silicon Valley. We have another one in Bavaria.

These things will become reality, at least from a technology point of view. Regulation might be a little bit tougher. Technology point of view, in the next five to ten years, absolutely sure.

We’re working with Siemens, I saw Roland Busch here, in the first row, on electrification. It’s a great partnership because this is not just for the flying cars or helicopters but for large commercial aircraft eventually. We hope, Roland, I think, that in 15 years or so we should be able to propel, at least in a hybrid mode, 100 seaters, 100 seat passenger seat aircraft by electrification. We’re building a test facility in Munich and partnering with other distinguished companies; I think we can say, Rolls Royce. That’s another very important element of what we’re doing.

We are very data rich, I mentioned that. Just to give you an idea, the latest A350 has 250,000 sensors on board. We can measure 900,000 system parameters. Only a fraction of those will be transmitted but we are currently installing on all planes a data-capture and data-transmitter entity with which we can transmit a huge amount of these data to the ground, more or less in real time. And that will have tremendous consequences, Carsten, for our customers, for the airlines because it should make our aircraft much more reliable. An extraordinary aircraft on the ground,  AOG, out of maintenance schedules so to say, we should be able to avoid in some years because we can predict the failure and go through maintenance, etc. So, there is a lot we’re doing here.

One thing we’ve done, and maybe that is a bit of a conceptual or philosophical lessons learned, we have a couple of years ago, three years ago only, seriously started the digitalisation journey and we focused very much, initially, and do still, on advanced data analytics because of the data richness. But, we did that by jumping into the cold war, by selecting a partner, [Sloan 1.15.33] famous palantir because they were and they are, in my opinion, the best data analytics company in the world.

What we did not do, what unfortunately I observe as a European country not just a German company, many companies do in Germany, politicians, develop first of all the big gazumped concept that covers all aspects including ethical issues, and you have ethical commissions and so on; but when you are ready with your gazumped concept the competition has moved ahead, is miles ahead.

So, I think, in this fast moving environment in which we’re in, going exponential, what is very important is to throw a stone into the pond, go after the ripples and then be very pragmatic. That’s, by the way, the way the Americans mostly do it; experiment and then find out what you can do and then later on think about regulation if that is necessary and not start the whole thing or try to cover all aspects.

I would say in Airbus’s case it has worked. We have built a big platform, an open aviation platform where we have downloaded, already – what is it, I need to look at it – petabyte of data, that’s obviously much more than gigabytes. Petabytes of data. And this is increasing. We have thousands of aircraft connected, already, and we will do more of that as well.

Let me come to one aspect that is important, or two aspects. Basically, stuff I thought about this morning on the plane. We are currently pretty much all dependent on US technology. If we look at our private e-activities and i-activities and iPhones and iPads and what we’re doing, I saw a figure recently that, for Europeans, Germans, more than 90%, sometimes 96% is US technology. I’m sure these days, a lot of entrepreneurs, decision-makers will think about that as we have a trade war looming, at least, I think we all hope that the big trade conflict does not happen with our long term partner the United States of America, but it could.

How could such a conflict possibly escalate and could it in [context 1.18.25] also access to these technologies. As long as it’s steel and aluminium, well at least I can say for my industry the consequences are limited; but, what about hi-tech, what about internet access, etc., etc.?

Then, yes, we have an alternative, China. The Chinese are catching up very rapidly. Their investment particularly into artificial intelligence is amazing but shouldn’t Europe be in a position to have some of our own capabilities in place and not just on the defensive side, not just in cyber-security. We tend to be good on defence in Europe. The new data, GDPR, I only know the English word [translate 1.19.13] I don’t know whether some of you have heard or read what Peter Thiel was saying here in Berlin a couple of nights ago. Well, Peter is sometimes a little bit extreme in his views, I mean, when he says that with GDPR is the much more incompetent version of Chinese internet censorship, maybe that’s a bit on the edge.

But, it should make us think, who is benefiting from that; who is suffering from that? Suffering will certainly be companies and particularly start-ups because it’s an administrative – let’s not be extreme – challenge. A big administrative challenge. So, we’re good in defence in Europe but we’re not playing offence and I think that is very important and I would like to conclude on that and say that what is important is that governments particularly look at infrastructure. Don’t make gazumped concepts; that’s not their job.

Infrastructure. It starts with education and I think both speakers before mentioned that, the human factor, the human resource, how important that is. We’re getting into some impasse in some areas already. One of our companies has massive re-skilling training programmes, hiring programmes, for new skills on the way. The World Economic Forum found out a couple of years ago, or predicted, not found out, it was a prediction that for those children who go into grammar school right now, two thirds of the occupations that they will eventually take on are not yet invented. So, we are here also talking about a really exponential trend.

Governments should look after connectivity, 5G, why should Europe be the last one introducing 5G, can’t we accelerate that? Networks, artificial intelligence, everybody speaks about it nowadays in Europe but look how fragmented the picture is. The European Commission is doing a little bit, the French have a dedicated budget; the Germans are creating centres; very much fragmented. And, you know, from my industry but also because we are mostly not conscious about it, space. Are we aware how dependent we are on space, on satellites, on access to space? Also in that area the European position is not, should not be taken for granted. Elon Musk is not just disrupting the electrical car business, or is trying probably unsuccessfully, but he’s doing the same thing with space.

Ladies and gentlemen, I stop here, these were just a couple of thoughts to complement what the previous speakers have said. Thank you very much, again, for the honour to invite me to this wonderful forum. Thank you.

Transcript of the keynote presentation made by Tom Enders at ESMT Berlin on June 7, 2018.

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