STEM Foundation

Interview with Gregor Dirks, Corporate Innovator at Airbus

NEF’s flagship annual conference Innovisions is exploring how to implement a deep and sustainable culture of innovation across organisations and supply chains. So we’re delighted that Gregor Dirks, Corporate Innovator at Airbus, is flying in to give us his unique perspective. Here he gives us a pre-conference taster of what’s been happening at the company


Tell us about your role

I work at Airbus’ Corporate Innovation Function, which was established in 2013 to help Airbus focus its innovation efforts and reinforce the culture of innovationinternally. It sits alongside other top level functions such as Engineering, Manufacturing or Finance. Personally my role is to ensure the consistency of our innovation portfolio: what we do, the way that we’re working and the tools that we’re using. We also try to ensure that we learn as much as we can from what we do.

How much of your workforce is engaged in innovation?

Nearly the entire global Airbus workforce of about 60,000 is contributing to innovation in one way or another. Innovation is part of our corporate DNA. Most employees are only temporarily working explicitly on innovation projects relevant to them. But we also have a considerable number of people that are permanently dedicated to innovation. Innovation is happening at all levels, from the CEO right down to the blue-collar workers. Our strategic priorities are set from the top down, but ideas can and do come from everywhere, bottom up and top down.

How have you implemented your innovation strategy at Airbus?

As a company we have a 50-year history of innovation. In the past, this was often limited to local initiatives and not all departments were aware of what was happening elsewhere. We started to implement new formal innovation mechanisms around eighteen months ago. This has definitely had a positive impact.

Previously innovators often got stuck with their local projects, and didn't manage to escalate issues to the relevant decision makers across the company. Now we have a wide, formal network of innovation catalysts and we’re able to do things that were unthinkable even two years ago.

How do you encourage innovation?

We have appointed people that are dedicated to innovation at each level of the company. They receive privileged information and they have opportunities to innovate and try things out. They enjoy doing this a lot and actively spread the spirit in their respective organisations. We use internal social media to engage the whole workforce in conversations that promote sharing and discussing innovative ideas.

What is your attitude to failure?

When it comes to innovation, there are two kinds of failure. If you can take an idea and fail fast in the early stages, before spending millions on implementation, and you make sure you understand why, that’s OK. Maybe something doesn’t work or the business model isn’t right. We encourage and protect people in the company who push high ambitious ideas in this way.

But then there’s another kind of failure: this occurs when projects aren’t carried out properly; the planning is not accurate, or mistakes are made in implementation or testing. This of course is something we’d want to avoid. We have deployed a light four-phase governance scheme to keep this in check.


How are you exploiting new technologies such as 3D printing?

There are so many advantages to 3D printing parts. You don’t need tools or jigs. You can adapt faster to customers’ needs, cutting costs and lead times. You can also create different shapes and consistencies, such as hollowed-out beams which are porous in structure and thus lighter, like bones.

We started exploring 3D printing as a company around five years ago, but we’re only just beginning to understand its full potential. We recently used our internal idea collection tool to ask people across the company to suggest potential aircraft parts that could be 3D printed. Around 200 designs came back. And we’ve taken up a couple of these suggestions.

What did you learn from this process?

There are obviously millions of parts in an aircraft. What really fascinated me was that some of our colleagues used software to develop a systematic approach to finding the parts that would most benefit from being printed. This was a very interesting discovery for us. We are now considering such software tools for other applications in the company.

Gregor will be joining our international line up of influential speakers from education, government and industry at Innovisions on 4th December 2014 at the Institute of Directors, Pall Mall, London. 


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