To be human in the twenty-first century is to live with constant change and disruption. So what does that look like in the aviation sector?
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was written and produced prior to many of the most severe COVID-19 responses, including the statewide stay-at-home order and the tremendous upheaval in the aviation employment market. While this story is about disruption, it is a different kind than what has resulted from the pandemic. However, the need for innovation and diversification has only become more urgent. We release this story to help further those discussions, knowing fully that the health of our fellow Wichitans is the most pressing concern for all of us. We in no way seek to minimize the loss of life and livelihood that has befallen our community. Our hearts go out to every person who has suffered loss or hardship.
AN AGE OF DISRUPTION
To be human in the twenty-first century is to live with the fact of constant change and disruption. Since the first email was sent, the internet has revolutionized how we live, work and communicate — how we watch movies, get from place to place and how we entertain ourselves.
Within the course of a single lifetime, the way in which we do just about everything has completely changed.
But this change hasn’t just happened on a consumer level. It has also changed how every industry does its work, and this change is being felt right now across Wichita’s most prevalent industry: aviation manufacturing.
Watch this video with aviation manufacturing suppliers Jason Cox, president of Cox Machine, and David May, president of Trinity Precision:
THE EVOLUTION OF AVIATION
Aviation is an established industry with established players that play established roles in engineering, manufacturing and flying airplanes in service of customers — whether they’re business leaders or the general public.
This may give it some illusion of invincibility. But the modern age has proven time and time again that any industry can be disrupted. In only the past 10 years, Uber has taken over the taxi industry, Netflix has revolutionized the way we watch movies and Airbnb has forever changed hospitality.
"From my perspective, disruption is very much where an industry’s really turned on its head in terms of how it’s done business," says David May, president of Trinity Precision, an aerospace supplier that machines and assembles parts for companies including Spirit, Textron, Boeing, Gulf Stream and Northrop Grumman. "Inside of aerospace, I think the disruption really starts in the design of the aircraft."
May says composites came onto the scene about 10 years ago, changing the way parts were made — and even the materials that were being used. Advancing technology also allowed manufacturers to build larger, "monolithic" structures.
From my perspective, disruption is very much where an industry’s really turned on its head in terms of how it’s done business.David May
These types of innovations have forced manufacturers and suppliers around the world to adapt to new materials and designs. But what does disruption look like for aviation in the future?
"I think there’s definitely going to be a push for more autonomous flying," May says. "In the commercial segment, the general aviation segment, and also for the defense segment when they’re talking about F-35 being the last manned fighter aircraft that’s out there."
Artificial Intelligence (AI) likely will be flying the plane sometime in the future. But it’s already involved in the building process through automated robotics and the industrial "internet of things," which allows machines to send data to an AI on the cloud.
"And that AI can perform analysis on your data and give you the opportunity for new insight into your production floor," says Jason Cox, president of Cox Machine, a supplier that fabricates mainly aluminum structural pieces for commercial aerospace. "As [disruption] applies to us, we’re looking specifically at ways that we can increase our efficiencies in ways that haven’t been tried before through … automation processes that are perhaps not new in the world but new in the aerospace sphere."
Whether drones, AI-driven aircraft or automated manufacturing, all likely apply to a much broader category than just commercial, general or defense aircraft. Space is a widening frontier, ready for companies within aerospace to explore.
DIVERSIFYING WITHIN THE INDUSTRY
With Boeing’s 737 MAX still grounded, and the coronavirus pandemic continuing to wreak havoc on the aviation industry in general, focus has intensified on Wichita’s need to diversify its economy — adding new industries that won’t be impacted by the same booms and busts as aviation.
But there’s room for the aviation industry to diversify itself, as well. Aerospace suppliers, like Trinity Precision and Cox Machine, have the infrastructure needed to process and manufacture metal parts. There’s no reason they can’t broaden their work.
"With our aerospace knowledge, that leads directly into medical devices, satellite technology, semiconductor manufacturing equipment and several other industries that are high-tolerance, similar materials that we are already used to and a similar level of technical sophistication and quality control," Cox says. "So these are opportunities for folks in Wichita that are doing aerospace right now that can diversify just by going into other markets."
With our aerospace knowledge, that leads directly into medical devices, satellite technology, semiconductor manufacturing equipment and several other industries that are high-tolerance, similar materials that we are already used to and a similar level of technical sophistication and quality control.Jason Cox
Space is one burgeoning industry that offers many opportunities for aerospace manufacturers. Cox Machine is already manufacturing parts for satellites used in this new industry.
"Traditionally, [space] has been the realm of large governments, and now it’s moving into private companies," Cox says. "So the whole space travel area has opened up a lot from a low-quantity, government-driven approach to a higher quantity production approach. … So that means more launches and more opportunities to build a product."
RISKS AND OPPORTUNITIES
The word disruption often has a negative connotation. And that’s not without reason. It often spells doom for companies that fail to keep up. Netflix had Blockbuster. Uber had thousands of taxi drivers. And Airbnb had hotels.
So what are the risks and opportunities for Wichita’s aviation industry during this next stage of disruption?
"I think the only thing that we can be sure of is that there will be change as we go forward in the future," Cox says. "If we fail to innovate and we fail to embrace change, we can lose all of that work to other competitors that are out of our state, out of our country."
A lot of the pressure to innovate exists within the supply chain. Smaller companies are often more agile — more able to take on the risk of change on a smaller scale.
"The large players are certainly doing a lot of innovation, there’s no doubt," Cox says. "But sometimes things can happen a little faster in a small company and can be implemented with a little less risk. So I think we’ve got an advantage there and that we can try things quickly and at not much of a expense as opposed to perhaps a larger company."
If we fail to innovate and we fail to embrace change, we can lose all of that work to other competitors that are out of our state, out of our country.Jason Cox
May says smaller companies are also less beholden to quarterly earnings reports and a roster of shareholders.
"So we would really focus on what the longer term result is," May says. "We’re able to develop the workforce that’s problem solving, that’s innovative, that’s working. … I think that there is something that’s lost in industry and in a community if they don’t have the small, entrepreneurial business that is really looking for that innovation."
So whether the next big thing is electric-powered aircraft, fully automated machine shops or pilot-free commercial jets, Wichita’s aviation manufacturing industry will likely have a role to play.
"If you wanted to look way out in the future, at some point, someone will probably invent something that makes air travel irrelevant," Cox says. "So if somebody comes up with something that’s able to move you more quickly than air travel from place to place, then we will try to build parts for that as well."