Airbus’ new Digital Transformation Officer, Marc Fontaine, discusses technological revolutions, the desire to change and a future in which the term ‘digital’ is no longer necessary.
We’re already benefiting from solutions to problems that we didn’t even know existed 10 years ago.
Marc Fontaine is structuring a programme that will bring about some of the most comprehensive and important changes Airbus has ever seen – a transformation that will prepare it for the future and lay the foundations of competitiveness in a digital world. One day, though, he hopes this programme will disappear. “Then, it will have been successful,” he says.
This May, the Frenchman was appointed Airbus’s first ever Digital Transformation Officer (DTO). There’s no predecessor to ask for advice, no real template to follow: embracing new technology to alter the way a company works is something every firm does differently. It’s also something that every firm must address. In little more than a decade, rapidly growing computer processing power, widespread high-speed internet access and almost constant connectivity have had a huge impact on how we live and work. The speed of change in our industry has been slightly slower, but it is catching up. “We’re already benefiting from solutions to problems that we didn’t even know existed 10 years ago,” Fontaine says.
In the future, there shouldn’t even be a ‘digital strategy’. It will simply be strategy in a digital world.
His aim is to establish a digital culture throughout the entire Group to tackle challenges and capitalise on the many opportunities. It should become such a part of everyday working life that the term itself becomes obsolete. “In the future, there shouldn’t even be a ‘digital strategy’. It will be simply be strategy in a digital world,” he says. “At some point, technology will have become so integrated, such a normal part of everything we do, that we won’t need to talk about it separately.”
A digital transformation isn’t just about sophisticated technology, though; it’s also about being smarter and more productive. “It’s about applying the right technology to the right parts of the business and improving processes and digitally connecting them in order to empower the user, whether assembly line worker, financial controller, supplier or customer,” states Fontaine.
Across Airbus, a digital community of more than 4,800 members are following or working on no fewer than 450 projects as part of the digital transformation programme, from design and manufacturing to support and exciting new product ideas. “Take virtual and augmented reality. These are technologies we’re already using, but there are fascinating developments happening all the time. We now have a cross-divisional team looking into how we can best use new devices like Microsoft’s HoloLens to speed up development time," says Fontaine.
Digitisation will also enable Airbus to explore different business models. A3, the company’s Silicon Valley innovation outpost, recently kicked off a project that involves developing an Uber-style on-demand service for urban helicopter transport, accessible via a mobile app. This would connect passengers and operators, making helicopters more accessible and affordable.
In addition to headline-grabbing examples such as these, Fontaine lists a number of other changes: there’s the Hub, a social intranet platform connecting the Group’s 136,000 employees; a Digital Passport initiative to ensure the entire workforce is digitally savvy; revamped reporting tools that will enable controllers to move towards an advisory role rather than crunching numbers; and a ‘data lake’ project for commercial aircraft, which involves building a reservoir of data for each in-service aircraft, from production to end-of-life, and making it available to relevant users across the company. “This will enable us to improve how we design and market our products,” Fontaine explains. “Data is the key to the digital transformation. We need to shift from being product-driven to data-driven.”
Fontaine is under no illusions about the nature of the task ahead. The sheer size and diversity of Airbus make this transformation a huge challenge. “One issue is embedding new solutions into the way we work – scaling up from pilot projects and prototypes to mass adoption. When you have to change processes, tools, ways of working that have been ingrained for decades – that can take a massive amount of time and effort.”
Nevertheless, the DTO is confident that the opportunities far outweigh the risks. “I can’t wait to demonstrate that the issues we’ve encountered in recent years can be solved. We know that we can do even better and there is a strong appetite to try new things – internally and among operators and customers. There has to be: this is one journey that won’t wait for anyone by the roadside.”
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