Standard Solutions in the Aerospace Industry

Mark Keilholz,VP IT,Greenpoint Technologies
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The engineering and assembly of commercial, military and private aircraft is truly an incredible technological achievement. For many, the aerospace industry conjures images of massive technologically advanced companies bringing to life marvels of engineering that are capable of zooming across the sky, protecting us from threats and taking us into space. Naturally, one might assume that the Information Technology (IT) supporting these activities is equally as awe-inspiring and technologically advanced.  Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. In reality, the aerospace industry is highly fragmented, with a small number of market-dominating global players and a vast network of suppliers that are subject to high degrees of government oversight and regulation. As a consequence, information technologies employed across the industry to manage business and production are equally fragmented, conservative and have been slow to change.

As an IT leader, it is fundamental to view all challenges as opportunities. Developing strategies and methods to utilize existing IT infrastructures, while maximizing support and expertise from external vendors, is key to building a future-proof IT platform that is capable of supporting the business and its growth opportunities. For example, a unique challenge to the aerospace industry is the limited set of software designed and tailored to support its business and operations.

Despite the billions of dollars contributed to the global economy by the aerospace industry, few software vendors have created out-of-the-box solutions that address the widespread issues and unique requirements in the industry. Most major software vendors have built broad platforms to support the standard, traditional manufacturing environments such as the automotive industry. While the aerospace industry does borrow heavily from traditional manufacturing, it varies enough to warrant an altered set of manufacturing practices; for example, the process of building a car and building an aircraft are extremely different. Aerospace manufacturing is lower in volume with a higher level of customization and greater complexity. For instance, two adjacent aircraft on an assembly line will often differ significantly based on their engineering and installation revisions. Therefore, it is important for our industry to recognize the need to develop updated solutions together, share our intellectual property more openly, move to adapt as many “standard” manufacturing tools as possible, and most importantly to engage with software vendors as strategic business partners. At Greenpoint Technologies, we have been successful with this approach. We challenge our internal customers to provide the context for variation from out-of-the-box software capabilities. When customization is necessary to support a valid business requirement, we help them understand the development backlog, the priority of their request and provide them with information that sets clear expectations. We participate in conferences, host webinars and share our approaches and experiences with our suppliers and outside organizations. We are actively engaged with our primary software vendors (our partners) and frequently participate in feedback sessions, customer advisory board seats, conferences and work to establish solid relationships between our in-house development team.

The opportunities that would lower costs and drive value are massive for many second and third-tier players in the aerospace industry. These organizations are small enough to be nimble, allowing them to invest in cloud technologies, systems, and adopt modern IT practices such as DevOps and Agile development with a rapid return on investment. At a middle level, these suppliers encourage the smaller players and new entrants to modernize, and continuously challenge the top-tier, traditional IT shops to advance innovation. 

Like most advanced industries, aerospace has a unique set of challenges that defines its business, operations and approach to technology. As an IT leader in aerospace, there are numerous opportunities to deliver business value that directly contribute to organizational efficiencies and ultimately affect the bottom line.  IT leaders often find themselves subject to the budget and technology constraints of their organizations, as well as facing additional pressures such as the consumerization of IT to weave employees’ work-life seamlessly with their daily life, new technologies employed by business partners and the industry’s conservatisms as a whole.  Bringing together the monetary and human resources necessary to keep pace with these demands can often be daunting. To be successful, aerospace IT departments must continue to redefine themselves from the perspective of being a cost-center to a business partner. Redefining requires willingness to rethink the traditional models of enterprise IT, expand internal development capabilities, and collaborate with software and hardware vendors to build the aerospace industry platforms necessary to support future industry and business needs.

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