EADS CEO seeks IT industry help to speed up aviation innovation

But innovation speed mustn't come at the cost of aircraft safety, EADS CEO Tom Enders said at the Cebit opening ceremony

"From the initial research work to its decommissioning, an aircraft's entire service life can amount to up to 90 years," said Tom Enders, CEO of aerospace manufacturer EADS and the invited speaker at the Monday night opening ceremony of this year's Cebit trade show.

That service life stands in sharp contrast to the way smartphones can move from first rumor to first sale in nine months, with some ending up on the scrap heap in another nine.

But Enders had more shock figures for tech buyers used to planned obsolescence and resigned to the unreliability of many consumer goods.

In an aircraft, he said, "From the first day to the last day, up to 3 million parts have to work perfectly, because the lives of over 3 billion people a year depend on compliance with safety standards. This is what differentiates the aviation industry from sectors whose models change frequently."

Bug fixes for smartphone operating systems or user-installed apps are pushed out over the air for months or years after their purchase, occasionally with undesirable consequences.

Things are different in the aircraft industry: Once supervisory authorities have certified a new type of aircraft, Enders said, all its software components are frozen, making the software technologically outdated by the time the airlines put the aircraft into operation.

There are good reasons for that caution, he said. "Windows XP has about 45 million lines of code. If one goes wrong, you just curse and reboot. In the worst case, you might lose a file. If a line of code goes wrong when you're landing a plane, you can't reboot. In the worst case, you might lose 500 lives."

Enders referred in passing to another kind of software disaster involving old and new technologies, one that cost no one their life but cost EADS billions: "If a cable is just a few millimeters out, production stops. That's what we learned the hard way." He was referring to production of the Airbus 380, elements of which were designed by EADS divisions in France and Germany using two different versions of the product lifecycle management application CATIA, version 4 and version 5. Differences between the two versions have been blamed for wiring looms not quite fitting the rest of the aircraft, bringing production to a halt.

EADS sometimes sticks with old technology in futuristic projects for other reasons. Bridget, an exploratory vehicle it is developing with the European Space Agency for a future mission to Mars, uses microprocessors developed in the 1990s. Between now and Bridget's launch in 2018, the power of new microprocessors will have tripled, Enders said, and by the time Bridget lands its processors will be 30 years old.

The aerospace industry -- like many other industries -- needs to speed things up, he said: The innovation process must be revolutionized, without damaging the industry.

"We need to increase the speed of innovation, without compromising on safety."

To achieve that, he wants to see industries -- not just aerospace, but all processing industries -- sitting around a table with the IT industry to close the innovation gap.

Dieter Kempf, president of the German association for the high-tech industry Bitkom, spoke of a different kind of innovation revolution, one that is driving its customers to consume services rather than products, to share rather than to own. It's a trend the Cebit organizers have branded the "shareconomy."

"Do you know a young person that has a CD or record collection?" he asked. "Probably not. Such a collection was once the pride of generations of young music lovers. And today? Today they have a Spotify subscription, and listen to what they want, when they want, where they want."

He cited other examples of how IT is helping replace ownership with sharing, rental or shared ownership, including the replacement of the video cassette by streaming video services such as Hulu, Netflix and Watchever, and the rise of car-sharing services such as Car2Go.

Consumers are also influencing -- or becoming -- designers of products of all kinds, through the rise of crowdsourcing, crowdfunding and product review sites that can quickly drive not just bad products but also bad companies out of the market, he said.

Enders spoke of one kind of wiring problem, but Johanna Wanka, German Federal Minister of Education and Research, praised a project that seeks to put an end to another, that of finding the right cables to connect up an Internet-connected display wall. She presented the first of four Cebit innovation awards to Alexander Löffler, a researcher at the University of Saarland's Intel Visual Computing Institute, who accepted it on behalf of the developers of Display as a Service. Three other Cebit innovation awards will be presented later in the week.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel concluded her speech with a plea for the IT industry not to forget older generations in its race to provide services to the younger generation:

"Remember that there are people who don't use the latest IT products every day. Write simple instructions. Make great demos. And don't use too many connectors and plugs," she said.

Cebit runs Tuesday through Saturday at the fairgrounds in Hanover, Germany.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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