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  • Executives look for better sustainment
    Posted by Michael Mecham 8:30 PM on May 31, 2011

    For the past three years, Aviation Week has hosted an Executive Summit in which participants hear from senior engineering executives, Wall Street analysts and CEOs in an off-the-record roundtable atmosphere that encourages a sleeves-rolled-up discussion of concerns common throughout the aerospace and defense industrial sector.

    Not surprisingly, many of the themes are evergreen topics—including reform of the Defense Department’s acquisition process, how to foster innovation, rejuvenating the A&D workforce, and demands of commercial aviation’s supply chain. But each year the summit comes at them from a slightly different angle as it develops action items that the company representatives can take home to work on for the next 12-18 months.

    Bold national goals are appealing, but some A&D leaders question the impact and feasibility of a call for a manned mission to Mars.Credit: NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER

    Four topics dominated this year’s discussions. Topping the list: establishing a national, overarching goal for A&D to rally around, a la President John F. Kennedy’s call to reach the Moon in a decade. It is not surprising how much that challenge from the ’60s still appeals to the industry, since it drove so much technical innovation. The summit thought a manned mission to Mars might achieve a similar effect. Never let it be said that A&D executives are not dreamers.

    A retired CEO of one of the country’s most innovative space exploration companies cautioned that the immense cost of such a mission makes it unlikely. While the choice of Mars may have been more symbolic than practical, the idea that the nation needs commonly accepted innovation priorities runs strong throughout the A&D sector.

    Other top priorities are a bit more prosaic, though no less important. The executives say they have to achieve a tenfold improvement in the affordability of weapons systems lest the industry risk its own future.

    The innovation side of this goal includes creating a climate in which suppliers ponder how quickly and affordably they can solve a customer’s problem. In that regard, the summit concluded that the industry must design systems that can be more easily adapted to new missions quickly. Using an Aegis warship as an anti-satellite missile platform came to mind.

    Along those same lines, attendees say companies tend to over-engineer products. From the outset, the focus should be on mission requirements.

    One recurring sore point is industry’s tendency to be more interested in measuring risk than innovation. Some argue that this is because Wall Street will not reward independent R&D. Analysts say this characterization is unfair. R&D innovation would be rewarded, they say, if there is a clear road map as to how it will be applied to future products.

    Another stalwart aim is to establish greater regulatory agility within the FAA (particularly to make NextGen air traffic management possible). Export control laws also garnered a lot of discussion.

    Other goals were a bit more surprising, such as what might attract the best and brightest students to A&D instead of computing, biotechnology, alternative energy and other high-technology industries. Competition is fierce for new talent across the spectrum. The summit concluded that the industry needs to think more broadly about how to nurture a talent pipeline, both in recruiting and retaining young professionals (see p. 53).

    Many spoke of how bright and hard-working today’s recruits are, but noted they are easily bored; putting them on “forever” development programs is a sure-fire way to drive them out the door. So management attitudes may need as much rejuvenation as the workforce’s.

    Catching up with China

    Aviation Week’s recent profile of the strategies used by top foreign aviation manufacturers in China (AW&ST April 25/May 2, p. 42) included a map of current and pending joint ventures that we knew might get us in trouble by being outdated or incomplete. China can be a tough market to research accurately.

    While Liebherr-Aerospace’s agreement for the Comac C919 program in Changsha remains pending, the company now tells us that its Wuhan Hangda Aerospace Technology JV was ended in 2009. Also, it has no pending agreement with Nanjing Air Engineering. We did not focus on maintenance, repair and overhaul joint ventures, although some were included because they involve re-manufacturing of components or aircraft. In that regard, one we missed is a veteran: MTU Maintenance Zhuhai, a partnership between China Southern Airlines and Germany’s MTU.

    On the omissions list, we forgot the JV that Avio signed in January with Avic Dongan Engine and Avicopter to develop power transmissions for China’s civil aviation market. The JV is to be built in Harbin and to be operational at the beginning of next year. The total investment is expected to be more than €150 million ($213.5 million).

    Tags: awcol, tw99

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