The aerospace and defense industry is facing extraordinary disruption on multiple fronts. With evolving market conditions affecting the supply chain and changing customer needs driving the impetus for innovation, companies need to act quickly to remain competitive.
With an agile approach, companies can more easily adapt to increased volatility while remaining profitable. How can agile help businesses in the industry achieve their goals? Read on for the answer!
Why Apply Agile in Aerospace?
Whether agile methodologies are applied to building an aircraft wing or an entire aircraft, the end goal remains the same – transform product development so that companies can enjoy faster design cycles, a more customer-centric approach, and self-directed, empowered teams that are more responsive to market demands.
In fact, aerospace and defense (A&D) OEMs that employ agile teams consistently improve their speed to market, reduce costs by 30 to 50 percent, and develop products that fulfill customer needs. Overall, working in an agile way can reduce time-to-market for milestones like prototype development and first flight. Additionally, agile processes can decrease nonrecurring costs due to shorter development cycle and in recurring costs thanks to more innovative thinking by agile teams.
Beyond these benefits, agile can help A&D companies develop new ways of working and addressing challenges, laying the framework for the broader cultural change needed to keep up with an ever-changing market.
Where Agile Works Best
So, how do agile processes actually help those working in the aerospace sector? First, let’s look at the types of problems typically relevant in the industry.
At a very high level, building an aircraft system usually follows the following phases:
- Concept Determination
- System Definition (Design)
- System Development (Including qualification testing)
- System Deployment (System becomes operational)
- Optional: an additional Disposal phase is added when the aircraft system is discontinued, and there is a transition to a new product design.
When it comes to applying agile to aerospace, the concept is mostly relevant to the Concept and Design phases. Using the agile methodology, aerospace teams focus on iterating their plans and obtaining fast feedback from all necessary parties to ensure straightforward product specifications. At the same time, these teams can use new technologies like desktop simulators and 3D printing to analyze their design choices, produce low-fidelity mock-ups, and work through any misconceptions early in the process.
5 Rules for Applying Agile to the Aerospace Industry
Agile is not a one-size-fits-all method. Broadly speaking, the philosophy rests on the following areas: customer focus, a spotlight on outputs, adaptability, and independent, empowered teams.
When it comes to implementing agile, A&D companies that are new to the process should keep the following guidelines in mind:
1. Explain why you’re going agile – Agile offers the potential for breakthrough results. Yet, for the methodology to be successful, it requires company leaders to communicate a clear case for change by articulating the explicit challenges facing an organization, why traditional engineering approaches may not be sufficient, and how working in an agile way will help overcome those challenges.
2. Be flexible with processes – Most A&D organizations organize projects around a timeline and linear sequence of steps. However, this approach to project management also results in teams that resist making changes or rethinking decisions once the project is underway. Therefore, leaders should reorient teams’ focus on principles and let them determine the best way to achieve desired results. This way of thinking more often encourages teams to work, think, and innovate in new ways.
3. Choose the right leaders – Change starts with leadership. Yet, the requirements for agile leadership can look different than the typical project manager. Organizations face the challenge of appointing the right program leader who has intellectual curiosity coupled with the needed technical credentials, experience working with the company, and the flexibility to embrace change.
4. Involve customers in design – One big change newly-agile teams may face involves getting customer feedback on design iterations early in the process. Removed from internal politics, external advisors can help the OEM develop a product they would actually buy. Further, receiving these comments help the team better understand customer needs and market realities. Of course, negative feedback can often make teams feel as though they have failed. Yet, that’s all part of the process. Rather than trying to develop a perfect product, agile teams should aim to get a “good enough” or MVP version into the hands of customers and other evaluators. That MVP is then refined based on customer feedback. By treating “failures” as learning opportunities, each iteration will be that much closer to the desired product.
5. Create cross-functional teams – Agile teams are unique in that they include members from a variety of backgrounds. Some expertise to consider includes design-to-cost, new manufacturing methods, alternate supply, and creative contracts. No matter their background, all team members should be aligned in their program reporting structure and be accountable to the team and the program. This setup will encourage cohesion and focus on end results while minimizing the potential for internal conflict.
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