From transportation in the air to transportation on the ground

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15 April 2018
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4 min read

Having spent some time both in the aviation space and working for an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) in the automobile industry, I thought it would be valuable to capture some of my reflections and thoughts on similarities and differences between the two. This is by no means a comprehensive or objective list, but merely throws a dart at the high-level insights I’ve experienced.

SIMILARITIES

Hardware and software coming together

An understanding of the hardware side of things is critical to creating software applications that support the hardware. With jet engines, not knowing what a failure mode is (why a part fails) is critical to understanding how you may represent those failure modes on a graph. For automobiles, each car and company is different so if you tried to scale software for all… it’d never work. Just look at the lack of standardization of electric chargers for vehicles.

Data is still on the horizon

While planes (and more recently cars) have always created and stored data, the use of that data for asset management has been quite slow. The concept of asset performance management (how the part is doing) and asset lifecycle management (looking at the part over its entire life to better manage it) exist but are not actionable. Even getting data off of assets is a struggle. I’ve heard stories of my Austin colleagues driving to Houston to physically plug in a hard drive to a plane to get the data off. In the automobile industry, there are OBDs (on-board diagnostics) that are only accessible to the technician (or you can buy your own device if you’re DIY-ing and there are more and more on the market slowly).

Prototyping is difficult

Both of these industries have heavy roots in manufacturing and thus prototyping is a completely new concept. Even though the team may be creating software to support a hardware device, the mental model of building hardware still exists. In such heavily regulated industries, years are spent developing the “perfect prototype” which then takes years to test (and ultimately might fail). This same mentality is applied when creating software (which is a 180 to agile development).

Design Evangelism is critical

While prototyping and software development practices are a hard sale, design is too. Although design has been practiced in its various forms for years within both of these industries, it is not explicitly called out and named the same way UX design / interaction design / product design are. Thus, when someone walks in with a formal degree in (insert your flavor of design), it takes a lot for them to earn the respect of their peers. Thus, design evangelism, advocacy, and teaching become a large part of your job as designers due to the lack of understanding of what it is.

 

DIFFERENCES

One of many or many of one

If you simply look at the number of planes in the world and the number of cars in the world, it’s clear which there are more of. This difference in quantity create different management styles for hardware and data as well. Simply from a data collection perspective, it’s easier to get data off of planes because there are fewer of them vs for cars you’re looking at trying to wrangle a lot more. From a product offering perspective, there are more kinds of cars out there than planes (because cars are more nimble to build).

Leasing vs. buying

Much of the aviation industry is based on leases. From jet engines to planes, leasing and sharing of assets is necessary due to the highly-regulated nature of the industry and frankly just the cost (which is insane). In the automobile industry, most consumers own their cars. While there is a huge shift towards car sharing and leasing, it will still take quite a while to catch up to the business models set up in aviation (which are very confusing to understand).

A place to play

While both industries have a lot of regulations they have to follow, the aviation industry seems to be more strict. Partially due to the size of the hardware, it is harder to play with service offerings and business models in the aviation industry. As we see OEMs and start-ups competing in the mobility space, they have a lot more leeway to try pilots and push cities to really rethink their regulations. With that said, we can see drones and other flying objects (flying cars included) wandering into the aviation space. I’m curious to see how much hype they can drum up and push countries to change policies.

Strategies to play nice

Pilot programs are very familiar to the automobile industry because they can move their assets really nimbly. With partnerships with transit agencies, mobility companies can tap into and work with existing infrastructure to see the lay of the land. However in the aviation space, consulting projects are the way to characterize demand. At GE, I used to do consulting projects across airlines, identify trends and patterns between them, and take the insights in-house to build products and services. These are two very different approaches to strategy but work due to the quantity of assets and how the industry is structured.

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