"If you want to take climate change seriously as a participant within the aerospace industry, then having millions of diverse devices around is just not doable. The key is to leverage the best elements of each vehicle –trains, electric cars and aircraft."
What will the aviation of tomorrow look like? Are air cabs the new urban means of transportation of the future? And what role does global warming play in the development of new technologies? Together with Sven Taubert, Head of Corporate Strategy & Market Intelligence at Lufthansa Technik we try to shed light on all these questions and get an insight into how Sven and his team work in the area of Corporate Foresight.
Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.
How green and sustainable is the aviation of the future?
Chris: Hi, and welcome to another episode of the 'Innovation Rockstar' interviews. I am Chris Mühlroth, and in this episode, I'm delighted to welcome Sven Taubert from Lufthansa Technik. We had already interviewed Sven in German, but we decided to record this episode in English because he shared some inspiring and meaningful statements on the future of aviation. It is without a doubt a topic that is becoming increasingly more important and will have a considerable influence on our private and business life. The questions we asked touched on how relevant sustainability is in aviation and what kind of technological progress we can expect to achieve targets and goals. We will also discuss how Lufthansa's professional foresight and market intelligence unit can support and contribute to the big picture. Without further ado, let's dive straight into it. Sven, thank you so much for taking the time.
Sven: Pleasure is all mine.
Chris: Before we get started with our agenda, why don't you tell us a bit about yourself, your career path leading to Lufthansa Technik and the origins of your passion for aviation.
Sven: I'd be happy to. I initially aspired to become a graphic designer shortly after graduating from high school. In the end, however, I decided against the pursuit of arts and instead enrolled in an aerospace engineering degree in Stuttgart and Tokyo; went in a more technical direction. After that, I joined a consultancy agency, which was my launching pad into the realm of innovation. My first task was to assist in the TRL process for Airbus and encompassed essential areas such as technological readiness, a brainchild of NASA. Shortly after that, I decided that it was time to jump to a more prominent company; thus, I was hired as a project lead by Airbus to oversee their innovation department in Hamburg and Toulouse. I lasted for five years with Airbus until I had reached the proverbial career plateau, and I felt like it needed a change by traveling the world. Unfortunately, that never happened since Lufthansa Technik had called and had informed me of their intent to create a brand-new innovation department. Their vision was to establish a formalized and professional innovation unit. That was my foot inside the door of a big company, the opportunity to mold and shape the innovation department from scratch. I was part of that project for three and a half years until I was promoted to Head of Corporate Foresight and Market Intelligence at Lufthansa Technik two years ago.
"After five years at Airbus I felt like it needed a change by traveling the world. Unfortunately, that never happened since Lufthansa Technik called and informed me of their intent to create a brand-new innovation department."
Chris: Starting from scratch can be a good thing. I am convinced that everyone is familiar with Lufthansa as an airline. However, you are at Lufthansa Technik, correct? So, what does Lufthansa Technik do, and how is your role aligned in the organization?
Sven: Lufthansa Technik is part of the Lufthansa group. As you correctly stated, the group is mainly composed and known for Lufthansa Airline. Still, other entities are part of it too, like Swiss & Austrian Airlines and Euro Wings. It doesn't end there, though. Lufthansa has many more servicing companies, and one of them is Lufthansa Technik. We are the world leader in MRO services, which stands for maintenance, repair and overhaul, and the purpose of all is to keep the aircraft flying. In that domain, we maintain Lufthansa and around 800 Airlines as customers, which adds up to about 1/6th of the world's aircraft fleet. Besides that, we have also been involved in product development and run a section for very wealthy individuals and governments who can afford colossal aircraft, like jumbo jets. An exciting company with a lot of different stuff happening. In my role, I'm responsible for the market intelligence and foresight for all of the Lufthansa Technik departments.
Advancing sustainable solutions in aviation
Chris: Okay. Let's turn to sustainability now, obviously around the topic of aviation. In that context, matters such as the ecological footprint, reduction of carbon emissions, and sustainable behavior, in general, are attracting a lot of attention. For example, I recently learned that about 5% of global warming is triggered by aviation; however, a mere 10% of the world's population has access to commercial aviation. Evidently, with that number expected to increase shortly, the demand for sustainability is getting more pronounced. With a growing demand for air transportation, how can the aviation industry attempt to be sustainable and environmentally friendly?
Sven: To tackle that question, I would like to share a comment that our group CEO, Carsten Spohr, said if it came down to it, the last drop off fuel would probably run through an aircraft engine. That may have a depressing undertone at face value. Still, it is undoubtedly an accurate statement since jet fuel is a super-efficient energy source. Jet fuel is a very stable liquid that operates on a wide range of temperatures, and contrary to Hollywood's depiction of it, you could drop a lighter into it, and it won't ignite. In contrast, it's effortless to transport. It burns efficiently as a source of energy, which means that aircraft won't have to carry as much weight as hydrogen or batteries. Our current challenge is to find ways to improve something that is already very efficient, like our fuel system. It's considerably more efficient than car or ship engines; thus, we are hitting the limits of current-gen technology. Every attempt to increase efficiency by reducing fuel consumption is extremely tough. A breakthrough in that area's technology is needed for further refinements. We are contemplating alternatives like electric-powered solutions similar to vehicles. Still, the energy requirements for aircraft exceed it by a substantial order of magnitude. Another possibility would be hybrid-based solutions. You have a cross between electric and gas-powered turbines, which would be more efficient but not 100% eco-friendly. Lastly, researching using a form of synthetic fuel is a possibility, and Lufthansa is considering that. Still, it has to be feasible and aligned to the realities of the various requirements. I recently checked some numbers for the Lufthansa fleet, as an example. I discovered that a total of 20,000 wind turbines would be required to power just that fleet. That is the equivalent of 2/3rds of Germany's wind turbine capacity. Wind turbine technology is undoubtedly an interesting solution to consider, but it isn't the panacea of all solutions. We'll most likely have to use a combination of various techs in the near future.
"We are hitting the limits of current-gen technology. Every attempt to increase efficiency by reducing fuel consumption is extremely tough.
A breakthrough in that area's technology is needed for further refinements."
Chris: There certainly is a wide range of technologies available that I am sure you have in your scope in some way, shape or form. On another note, in comparison to the traditional short, medium, and long-haul flights, the notion of 'Urban Air Mobility' is currently getting a lot of attention, correct? The theoretical concept has been known for a considerable time. I do remember the idea of creating autonomous air taxi services like the City Airbus, Volvo Copters, VTOL aircraft, etc. In your opinion, how realistic is the prospect of transitioning a significant proportion of urban ground traffic into the air?
Sven: There are also drones for cargo-hauling to add to that mix. In any case, my first and foremost opinion is about what is feasible in an environmental context. Most currently led studies focus primarily on what is or isn't possible from a technological point of view but less from an ecological one, despite long-winded and frequent discussions in the aerospace industry. I consider it a good idea on paper to use airborne vehicles and tie them to services like Volo Copter, City Airbus, Lilium, etc., to name a few German ones. However, it's also clear that there are apparent operational limitations of using helicopters in that role, including the range. I could see that domain and the powering technology take off in the next two to three years, though. On the flipside, equipping vehicles to become airborne would confer next to no ecological benefit. If you want to take climate change seriously as a participant within the aerospace industry, then having millions of these devices around is just not doable. The key is to leverage the best elements of each vehicle –trains, electric cars and aircraft. Cross-purposing would make no sense from an energy point of view and climate change by extension.
Chris: At the end of the day, it's a question of physics, correct? The solution requiring the lowest energy consumption will likely prevail without knowing all the facts. It's not about a specific vehicle or a group of cars, but rather a question of global energy consumption. Aside from that, wouldn't it make it unnecessarily more complicated to add airborne vehicles close to cars and trains?
Sven: I'm unsure about the complexity aspect in the context of the topic that we are currently discussing. Suppose you have individuals flying from Hamburg to Munich; once there, they would have to switch their mode of transportation anyways. It wouldn't make much difference, whether that be an electric car, train or Volo copter. Volo copter and those similarly inclined are confident in their prediction that they will solve most traffic problems of today within the next x-years within big urban centers; hence an attempt to solidify their concept and portray themselves as indispensable. I can't say that I fully agree with their lofty view and business case since ground-based transportation methods are also continuously evolving. Trains have become more sophisticated, and the same can be said with the standard car; both ways see a substantial shift towards autonomous operation. These developments should also alleviate some of the traffic system issues we are currently facing. As you well mentioned, physics will also play a crucial and limiting factor since airborne vehicles will need more energy, which requires better efficiency. It's all about balancing and finding that proverbial sweet spot. However, that sweet spot for most is flying but with the caveat that it might be primarily accessible in its current form to wealthy individuals; thus, these airborne vehicles on a scale could be a solution. However, as I mentioned before, that would have to be on a massive scale, which isn't feasible, in my opinion. The same could be said for delivery or cargo transportation.
I can't see my pizza airborne delivered when a land-based alternative could do just the same. Like medical transportation from one institution to another, niche transportation is something we are currently piloting in Hamburg, and the need for it makes more sense since it's based on time sensitivity and a smaller scale.
Proactive foresight at Lufthansa Technik
Chris: Ample grounds for fantastic discussions on real-life applications. Very intriguing indeed. Looking at your role as Head of Corporate Foresight and Market Intelligence, your task, in collaboration with your team, is to identify, analyze and describe emerging trends and technologies early. Equipped with these insights, you offer consultation services to the innovation community and strategic departments at Lufthansa Technik. Let's take a closer look at your department. How is it organized, and how are you linked to other departments?
"I would consider us as an internal think-tank of Lufthansa Technik, functioning as a liaison between the innovation department and strategic one. For instance, we provide insights to the strategic and M&A department by identifying trends and emerging technologies that feed into the innovation process."
Sven: Our organizational structure comprises five teams: The innovation team, the strategic team, a workplace improvement team, which is a German thing and primarily looks at improving the workplace environment …
Chris: I believe it's part of and called a continuous improvement process.
Sven: It's somewhat related to innovation but more workplace-related. It's defined and refined by a counselor who helps improve the various processes. Anyhow, as I said, it's a German thing. Finally, you have the patent department and the foresight and market intelligence department. I would consider us as an internal think-tank of Lufthansa Technik, functioning as a liaison between the innovation department and strategic one. For instance, we provide insights to the strategic and M&A department by identifying trends and emerging technologies that feed into the innovation process. A bit like being the spider in the middle of the web.
Chris: Turning the spotlight towards the individuals in your organization; are they all coming from a technical background, or are they strategists and managers?
Sven: In my team, we try to be as diverse as possible. Since operating as a think-tank, it is beneficial to have input from different perspectives and angles and learn from each other as a team. Lufthansa Technik is a globally involved company. We are not merely limiting ourselves to the German or European markets but turning our gaze towards Asia, Africa, and the Americas; that fact requires diversity in our knowledge repertoire and networks. We have individuals with experience in aerospace engineering, some who possess a broad understanding and knowledge of the industry and subject matter experts who evaluate what is and is not possible to be implemented on aircraft. We also have individuals with pure business and economic backgrounds to round our team out. Of course, everybody brings their interests into the field, such as politics and how that could impact overall. We embrace the notion that you don't get merely one opinion but as many opinions, as you have team members; those members are made of six individuals with six views contributing to a great product, hopefully in the end.
Chris: The multitude of foresight methods is quite extensive. It ranges from trend and technology scouting to collecting market intelligence, data-driven approaches and software tools. Could you shed some light on your team's uses and processes when working on projects?
"In my opinion, scenario-based work is hands down the best method of providing insights to customers about their various options. They are not presented with one take on the scenario but several and can form their own opinions. We are currently using the ITONICS Tool mainly for documentation and communication as a software tool."
Sven: I'm not a big fan of straight processes; since each innovation project is unique, shoehorning it into established procedures would provide little benefits. However, I am a proponent of established guiding processes and documents concerning the final products. That allows us to be aware of the expectations and standards to achieve, making it more accessible from a sales point of view when approaching customers and gaining valuable insights on lessons-learnt at the end of the chain. You have to be versatile and agile in your methodology of collecting that sort of information. You already mentioned a couple of them, like scenario work, which is, if done correctly, somewhat complex. Due to that complexity, we tend to use it once or twice a year. Still, in contrast, we use a lighter version of that same approach that allows for more flexibility. For example, we get a question from the CEO and have to provide an answer within a specific time constraint, let's say a week or two. Using the complex method would undoubtedly make us miss that timeframe, while the lighter version would be more accommodating. In my opinion, scenario-based work is hands down the best method of providing insights to customers about their various options. They are not presented with one take on the scenario but several and can form their own opinions. We are currently using the ITONICS-Tool mainly for documentation and communication as a software tool. Still, we are also keen on using AI to gather information in fields we are not as familiar with. We also leverage paid and unpaid sources in the shape of professional networks. Networking is an integral and essential key in this job via phone or video conferencing, possibly in-person meetings eventually after COVID. On Monday, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is starting, a recurring non-aviation-related event for me. I gained a solid impression of how things are developing among the community of experts from various industries. It's not necessarily about the product itself. Still, the genuine exchange of information on current challenges and specific technologies are trending, like autonomous driving and the various prototypes. It's an enriching exchange and experience.
Chris: It's all about being receptive to incoming information initially and then retaining the most relevant and valuable at the end. What about your decision-making process in deciding what emerging technology is a worthwhile investment? How do you evaluate becoming the vanguard or letting others go first depending on the risks involved?
Sven: I would say it's a mixture of experience —better known as a gut feeling— and the business case. Ideally, it would always be singularly dependent on the business case. However, you often have no idea how the business case will turn out with distant and untried emerging technologies. In such a case, you have to start with the gut feeling. For instance, it's a solid idea to invite people with experience to receive input and document them in radar technology. Another source for information would be crowdsourcing, where you get bits and pieces. From all, hopefully, you can make a more informed decision. Lastly, it has to fit with the overall company strategy and vision; in other words, does the technology fit with its overall future. People are not always aware that technology isn't always progressive; it can often be regressive. These actors have to be considered when deciding what direction to turn to. These decisions need to be revisited and reiterated based on newly discovered information at the time.
Chris: That's an exciting aspect. Could you walk us through a specific example of an emerging technology or your project?
Sven: Sure. Let's take an unsuccessful case because these are the cases we can draw lessons from the most. I was involved back then with a project called 'E-Taxi' when I had just started with Lufthansa Technik. The concept of the project was to install an electric motor into the landing gear of an aircraft to assist in ground movement. The current process is that, once everybody has boarded the aircraft, a push-back is required by a tow truck. During that push-back, the aircraft's engines are started. Once started, the aircraft propels itself forward on the ground by its engine power to the runway. The case for that project was to reduce costs and the impact on the environment by using the electric motor in the landing gear. It sounds like a straightforward process, but it's pretty demanding and complex on paper. It's not just about the technology of the electric motor but about making a business case, as previously mentioned. Still, there are also physical limitations like adding additional weight to the aircraft, the cabling, etc. These electric engines have to be powered by something that would have to be done by the APU, a gas-powered engine at the aircraft's tail. All that would have to be evaluated whether it adds or takes away from overall aircraft performance in the most reasonable way. It was one of the most complex cases I have had thus far in my career. Unfortunately, what seemed like a beautiful idea, in the beginning, turned out to be not profitable and impactful from an economic nor an ecological side. Since we had already heavily invested into that project from a technological and process point of view, we decided to learn from that by documenting the whole thing. That took us roughly half a year, and that is not considered a common thing to invest much time and effort after the termination of a project. Still, it turned out to be a good thing in the end since that project seems to come up every two months. It starts with someone having a spark of an idea. The whole process of evaluation and feasibility begins again. Still, this time, thanks to the documentation, it's a lot easier to make these suggestions and evaluations since it's based on existing data, leading to previously unconsidered directions of discussions. I would say that adopting a documentation process was a worthwhile endeavor since very often in our business. You have someone remembering that a similar project had been attempted ten years ago. Still, when asked about the details, they cannot recall the fundamentals, nor is the individual who led the project with the company any longer. Too often gets classified as a bad idea, but that is certainly not always the case, since the circumstances back then might be different today since advancement in technology or regulations could support such a project today. Preservation of information is a crucial element, especially in foresight, since you are forming and making judgements at a very early stage.
Chris: That's right. In the beginning, you mentioned that you are part of five different groups —foresight, strategy, innovation, etc. Who is assuming leadership on these projects? Do these projects start with the foresight team and then get passed along to another team during that interaction?
Sven: There's much more to it than initially meets the eye since our product divisions have embedded innovation teams. These teams are more involved in their side of the business, like engine overhauls, one of the most demanding businesses we do. It's essential to maintain a line of communication with these folks. Overall, we don't follow a very traditional structural hierarchy between the teams since, as mentioned earlier, it would impede our progress rather than support it given all the constraints on and unpredictability of information gathering, forming opinions, etc. In my opinion, the projects that we spend the least amount of time on are most likely to succeed, especially if a particular project or technology is considered in high demand. However, under normal circumstances, we are contending with projects that are seen as low-hanging fruits that still can yield some success. On the subject of technology, staying up-to-date is vital. Therefore, you need to discuss various application matters and whether it's advisable to work on prototypes or move straight into production and then onto the shop floors or even onto the aircraft. It's really on an individual case-by-case basis. Interdepartmental interaction is an essential aspect and aligning everyone involved in projects from initial brainstorming to implementation onto the aircraft as early as possible through soliciting feedback from all sides. That extends into joint-decision making, especially when challenging the various points that make up a business case. I can't call myself an expert in every field. Neither can anyone else, so pooling that knowledge and jointly looking at things will allow management to make better and more informed decisions on potential investments by presenting them with various thought-out options to choose from.
Chris: There certainly is a lot to do for the coming years. Summing everything up, the future of aviation most probably will remain on top of our agenda for a very long time to come, and I think this requires well-informed leaders who don't fixate on ecological and utopian scenarios, but also who are not afraid to tell how it is based on a thorough understanding of prevailing circumstances and technology. We need leaders with a knack for anticipating and reacting to the future sensibly. Being part of Lufthansa Technik, I believe you're making a significant contribution to that, which is excellent to know. Before wrapping up this interview, I have two more questions. In your opinion, what will happen next in the aviation industry, and what can we expect soon?
"Flying over the Atlantic, for example, is going more in the direction of synthetic fuels. At the same time, medium-range would be a good candidate for hybrid propulsion. Short hops could be powered by battery technology."
Sven: We will witness improvements in gas-turbine technology with diverse ranges of applications. Capacity will also be an important area that will see significant expansion. The idea is to make things smaller to be fitted onto various vehicles without detrimentally affecting any characteristics, like long-range flights. Flying over the Atlantic, for example, is going more in the direction of synthetic fuels. At the same time, medium-range would be a good candidate for hybrid propulsion. Short hops could be powered by battery technology. There are many avenues for advancing battery technology, which can spill over into larger aircraft prototypes. The most significant change for the industry is the standardization of aircraft, like all the identical and using the same current technology of today. In addition, as an MRO provider, we will be faced with a more complex portfolio; therefore, we need procedures that allow us to adapt, and we need to consider that sooner rather than later. Failure to do so would leave us vulnerable and unprepared for the future.
Chris: Challenging to stay on top of and manage. Sven, the last question I have for you is a personal one. When looking back on your career at Lufthansa Technik, what would you consider the most significant 'Innovation Rockstar' moment to date?
Sven: That's a tough one because I am constantly looking ahead and less back. We recently had a team celebration before all that COVID stuff happened for our fifth anniversary as an innovation team as Lufthansa Technik. I was asked to make a commemorative speech and therefore had to reflect on where we began. I realized that we have come a long way from what I initially imagined in the early days. It's a bit of a pitfall of forgetting to appreciate the past successes, especially if you are looking ahead into the future twenty, thirty years or so. I felt the sense of accomplishment wasn't really because of any technological breakthrough but on what we achieved and how we implemented various beneficial processes and team cohesion—pretty stoked about that. One of the proudest moments I can recall was when I was sent to the aerospace research center in Hamburg. We were pitching several new techs and techniques to them at the time. Today, I recognize all the prototypes we worked with and our journey. Those shared moments are unique and should be seen; hence, this job is unique and remarkable. Innovation is valuable, and so are the people in it.
Chris: Okay, that sounds pretty cool, and with that, we have a wrap. Thank you so much for the inspiring insights into your work at Lufthansa Technik and for sharing your extensive expertise.
Sven: Thanks for having me.
Chris: A note to all of our listeners or the video viewers. If you would like to get in touch with Sven to discuss the future of aviation or anything related to foresight and market intelligence at Lufthansa Technik, then check out our ITONICS LinkedIn profile. We will post this episode over there, along with a way to get in touch with him. In addition, we now offer our 'Innovation and Sustainability Trend Report 2030' for free. In that report, we describe many influencing factors that will significantly shape the future and provide predictions for future action and inspiration for innovation. The download is now available on our website at Itonics-innovation.com, and grab your free copy today. That's it, folks. Thanks for listening. See you in the next episode.
About the authors
Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. Sven Taubert is Head of Corporate Foresight & Market Intelligence at Lufthansa Technik.
The Innovation Rockstars podcast is a production of ITONICS, provider of the world’s leading Operating System for Innovation. Do you also have an inspiring story to tell about innovation, foresight, strategy or growth? Then shoot us a note!
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