September 2016

I don’t plan to reflect, until later in the Council year, upon the many Branch meetings and other activities which I have been privileged to attend but I will mention now the excellent celebration of the Society’s 150 years hosted by the Washington DC Branch in June, which happily coincided with my participation in the AIAA Aviation conference taking place in DC that same week: all in all a rewarding visit to the US from the perspectives of both my presidency and the day (morning?) job. This slightly rambling lead-in to the AIAA meeting is by way of introducing the soundbite which lodged in my head at one of the plenary Q&A sessions: Michael Delaney of the Boeing Company, also celebrating a significant birthday in 2016, was asked if his company was as innovative now as it was 100 years ago.

Innovation is one of the themes of the Society’s 150th celebrations. It is also a subject which has engaged me personally over the many years that I have worked in aerodynamics and have come to appreciate the lengthy chain of events between the genesis of an idea and the moment when hardware or software actually flies on an aircraft. Of course, the question to Mr Delaney conveniently sidestepped the hugely different environment that aerospace and aviation occupy today as compared with 100 years ago, when aviation was the domain of adventurers, entrepreneurs and courageous pioneers. Today, our industry underpins both the global economy and global security. The machines which we design and operate work at extreme speeds and temperatures and at impressive levels of efficiency. Our systems cope with a huge number of degrees of freedom. We employ materials of extraordinary resilience and low weight. We have brought to maturity the science of simulation, in design, in operational analysis, and in training. While delivering what are exceptional achievements in engineering, we have developed, along the way, best-in-class cultures for quality and safety. At the same time, our businesses work in an environment of extreme cost and extreme risk: engineering developments involve a vast array of interconnected challenges; products come with eye-watering price tags, even more so our product development programmes. There is much to lose, as well as to gain.

For sure, this risk environment – and our acquired knowledge – have necessarily changed how we innovate. The question is whether these factors have adversely affected our aspiration and ability to innovate. Is our industry still world-leading in terms of exploiting new ideas and technologies? Is the risk associated with technological innovation ‘over-priced’ and holding back the pace of change? This will be the theme of the 2016 President’s Conference, taking place at Hamilton Place on 29 November. The Society has invited leading CEOs and CTOs to Hamilton Place, first to reflect upon recent achievements and then to discuss how the nature of innovation has changed as our industry has matured; how the industry will maintain or enhance its reputation as a leader in innovation; whether we can accelerate the rate at which new ideas are brought to market; and our management of risk as a barrier to innovation. In the race to attract the finest minds of the future, our industry must be wary of taking the ‘Wow!’ factor for granted.

Professor Chris Atkin CEng FRAeS