When the Open Innovation initiative launched through Airbus Helicopters’ research department, it became the first of its kind at Airbus Group: an extremely simple, effective way for small and medium enterprises (SME) to promote their technology at Airbus Helicopters. The initiative’s goal to foster exchange – of technology, solutions, and industrial brainstorming – has opened the way to new partnerships with potential suppliers, and provided a structured platform for collaboration.
In an application form that requires just thirty minutes to complete, SMEs give a short description of the company and technology being proposed, and are asked to evaluate their product’s maturity and targeted benefits. Airbus Helicopters reviews each proposal. Those which generate interest are invited to a 90-minute meeting with experts, where prospects make their case. At this time, too, the manufacturer identifies where the proposal might be applied at the company.
In its first year, Open Innovation received 35 applications. These ranged from a new heat-transfer method to nanoparticle-based technology. The process favors proposals that show signs of advanced development. “The best situation is to see technology which has already been applied in a domain other than helicopters, such as from the aeronautical industry,” said Jacques Le Sauce, research program manager at Airbus Helicopters. “The lowest level of maturity we consider is to have a prototype or a real scale demonstrator. That allows us to imagine if we can integrate this technology in our products.”
The program’s concise application process has seen a healthy amount of success. Before Open Innovation, Le Sauce noted that suppliers and partners were often unclear of whom to contact to discuss new proposals. “The idea of Open Innovation was to make sure each proposal would be reviewed, and when possible, to organize a meeting with experts,” said Le Sauce. “It was a way to respond to the needs of suppliers.”
And suppliers responded in kind, submitting proposals which demonstrate the wealth of creative thinking on tap in the industry. Last year, nine meetings were held with applicants. “This is a collaborative process,” said Le Sauce. “That’s the first thing to remember in looking for new technology, because it’s the technology holders who propose solutions and we who evaluate them.” The expert meetings put representatives from different parts of Airbus Helicopters in a room with the external SME, promoting constructive exchange for both parties. “That opens the door for discussions among experts who aren’t from the same background,” Le Sauce said. “It creates internal exchanges.”
Of course, the ultimate hope is that such exchanges will help new technology get off the ground. In one case, experts heard a proposal for a bonding technology using ultraviolet light that is already being used in the automotive industry. The process, which if successful may replace an existing method, uses a special adhesive that polymerizes in an ultraviolet environment, cutting the time needed for bonding from 24 hours to just five seconds. If applied, it could drastically change the way Airbus Helicopters will install electrical harness or small equipment in the future.
In line with much of its company transformation in recent years, the Open Innovation initiative highlights Airbus Helicopters’ visionary new methods of working, welcoming innovative ideas from around the world. Last year’s proposals originated from, among others, Russia, the United States, Germany, India, and Australia. The meetings with Airbus Helicopters’ experts have proven to be an opportunity for such companies to evaluate the maturity of their ideas and pitch their strengths to a receptive and discerning audience. As in the case of the UV bonding solution, such meetings can and do lead to the proposal’s acceptance and a launch of preliminary studies.
Collaboration of this kind contributes to putting Airbus Helicopters at the forefront of innovation. “I think we are one of the first in our industry to propose something so simple to use,” said Le Sauce. “And clearly open to innovative companies.”