Airbus's Corporate Innovator Gregor Dirks on Fly Your Ideas big appeal

17,000 students from 100 countries make Fly Your Ideas one of aviation's largest innovation programmes
Gregor Achim Dirks, corporate innovator, Airbus
Gregor Achim Dirks, corporate innovator, Airbus
The Retrolley prototype
The Retrolley prototype
The designs Team Multifun used in their winning proposal
The designs Team Multifun used in their winning proposal
Students at the Airbus Group Airnovation Summer Academy
Students at the Airbus Group Airnovation Summer Academy
2015 winners, Team Multifun, were a ‘virtual team’ and only met in person at the final in Hamburg, Germany
2015 winners, Team Multifun, were a ‘virtual team’ and only met in person at the final in Hamburg, Germany
2013 Team Clima’s Mark Spiteri and Giorgio Bona from Team Flybrid
2013 Team Clima’s Mark Spiteri and Giorgio Bona from Team Flybrid
Team Retrolley presenting their design
Team Retrolley presenting their design

"Fly Your Ideas is a great ‘calling card’ for the next opportunity, whether it’s an internship or a programme like the Airbus Group Airnovation Summer Academy."


How have winning entries from previous editions of the contest benefitted Airbus?
The winning projects over the four editions of the FYI were not selected based on their potential benefit to Airbus. Instead the proposed ideas, degree of innovation and potential contribution to a better environment, teamwork shown throughout the competition, as well as the quality of the students’ work and team presentations were what decided the winners. Not all submitted ideas from the competition will find their way onto Airbus aircraft or into Airbus processes, but many of them are shared with specialists throughout the organisation.
For example, Team Stanford ADG from Stanford in the US were finalists in 2009 with their proposal on inverted V-formation flight, building on the model of migrating birds to reduce energy consumption. This led to a partnership and a collaborative research project into extended aircraft formations. We also worked on a follow-up project with the multinational Team Coz from the University of Queensland, Australia, who won the 2009 contest with a project focused on the use of a pioneering natural fibre composite–made from castor plants–in aircraft cabins. And an exploratory project was also undertaken with 2011 finalists Team Msia on Mars from the Universiti Kuala Lumpur Malaysian Institute of Aviation Technology. Their idea was about using biodegradable materials from Kapok tree fibres for aircraft thermal and acoustic insulation blankets used for aircraft cabins. So we do work with teams and their universities to develop some of the finalists’ proposals, but whether or not they will be implemented in the future isn’t possible to say.

Can you share details on how one of the ideas is being developed further?
The 2015 runners-up, Team Retrolley from the University of São Paulo in Brazil, won a spot in the final with their innovative approach to recycling. Single-aisle aircraft (like the Airbus 320 series) are often used for short-haul journeys with tight turnaround times. Cabin crew simply don’t have time to divide waste for recycling. The team’s idea was for a new cabin service trolley (The Retrolley) that enables the time-efficient and easy recycling of cabin waste. A great idea with immediate roll-out and commercial potential.
Members of Team Retrolley are continuing to work with the Airbus Innovation Team and a prototype Retrolley has been developed for on-board testing and potential short-term commercial rollout.


"Not all ideas will find their way onto Airbus aircraft or into processes, but many of them are shared with specialists throughout the organisation.”

What kind of talent does Airbus look for?
Fly Your Ideas is open to students from every university, level of study and country. Retrolley team members were not engineers but students in Design. The challenges that we have identified are broad enough to inspire students from all disciplines, from Business models to Flight operations and Passenger experience, or from Design engineering to Manufacturing. Teams don’t have to all come from the same place either. Our 2015 winners, Team Multifun, were a ‘virtual’ team, who only met in person at the live final event in Hamburg. They succeeded despite studying at four different universities and working across different time-zones.

Does Airbus go on to hire the students that participate in FYI?
Recruitment isn’t the main objective of Fly Your Ideas, but it is a good way for us to interact with a global pool of talented students interested in aviation and innovation. It enables us to have a dialogue with leading academic institutions and encourage students to develop employability skills (presentation skills, idea development, visualisation, prototyping etc) that employers like Airbus value. It’s a beneficial experience for students soon to be leaving university and seeking employment.
But several former Fly Your Ideas participants have gone on to work or intern with Airbus as well. For instance: Benjamin Lindenberger from Fly Your Ideas 2009 winning Team Coz joined the Airbus offices in Bremen, Germany, to work on Materials & Processes–Composite Technologies; Mark Spiteri from 2013 runner-up Team Clima interned at both Airbus France as well as Airbus Future Projects in Bremen with Giorgio Bona from 2013 finalists Team Flybrid.

How does Airbus encourage teams that don’t win to continue generating ideas?
Having an idea is only Step 1! What is important is to be able to refine and develop this idea, take feedback on board, prototype and visualise, support your teammates and work within a timescale or to a deadline.
Every team gets the opportunity to develop these skills by taking part in the competition, and build their professional network. Many are still informally in touch with their Airbus Team Mentors. Fly Your Ideas is a great ‘calling card’ for the next opportunity, whether that’s an internship or a place on a programme like the Airbus Group Airnovation Summer Academy.
Some of our alumni have notably used the experience as ‘stepping stone’ to the next challenge. Mohit Gupta from 2015 winners, Team Multifun, drew on the experience of success in Fly Your Ideas to lead his university team to victory in the Airbus American Innovation Showdown. The team has also decided to take the idea to the next stage by registering patents and incorporating as a startup. What we are also seeing now is that students from earlier editions are now acting as mentors and advisors to their peers, sharing their experience about how to make it through the three progressively more challenging rounds.

What value does the UNESCO partnership bring?
UNESCO granted patronage to Airbus Fly Your Ideas in 2012 because we both recognise the importance of making engineering and STEM subjects and careers more visible and better understood by the next generation, as well as showcasing how people from every background and profile can innovate and solve problems. Fly Your Ideas is a truly global competition and working with UNESCO helps broaden our horizons and take us closer to realising the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Something that we really emphasise is the importance of diversity–of students’ backgrounds, profiles and areas of study–as it’s a proven driver of innovation and performance. With UNESCO, we can reach and connect with an even wider audience through their 190 member states. That’s why we were pleased to formalise our partnership with UNESCO in 2014 and now again in 2016 for the fifth edition. Their endorsement really reinforces Fly Your Ideas’ status as a first-class global competition. Fly Your Ideas has become a biennial fixture for student innovators around the world. Our partnership with UNESCO has also helped us connect with students in their 190 member states.


"Recruitment isn’t the main objective of Fly Your Ideas, but it is a good way for us to interact with a global pool of talented students interested in aviation and innovation.”

How does this competition help Airbus’ bottom line at all?
Airbus launched Fly Your Ideas in 2008 with two aims: to stimulate innovative ideas for a sustainable aviation industry and to identify opportunities for research and training development and interaction with academic research teams. It’s part of our commitment to inspire the next generation of innovators, engineers and employees for the aviation sector. It’s also a real ‘breath of fresh air’ for our established workforce. We’ve had over 380 employees involved to date, and they all find it stimulating to work with the student teams.
At Airbus, innovation is in our DNA. So, we need a workforce that has both the hard skills–engineering graduates, for example–as well as people throughout the business who have an open, innovative mindset and real experience of working through a problem, all the way to prototyping and presenting their ideas. That’s exactly the experience that students gain from taking part in Fly Your Ideas
We also need these skills within the wider innovation ecosystem around aviation. Successful partnerships with entrepreneurs and startups are an important part of our strategy as a leading aircraft manufacturer. For this edition of the competition, we are actively encouraging ‘out of the box’ thinking–we want the disruptive ideas that could completely revolutionise the way we fly.

How does Airbus plan to grow the competition?
We make changes to every edition to reflect the fast-moving ecosystem of aviation, innovation and other student competitions. For example, for the 2017 edition we have 5 industry challenges, as developed and selected by Airbus employees–a fantastic ‘real world’ learning opportunity.
The competition has also evolved to reflect the dynamic, interactive digital classrooms that are increasingly part of students’ learning experience. While the opportunity to innovate and develop ideas with Airbus Mentors and Experts has always been a unique feature of Fly Your Ideas, Round 1 teams can now engage with experts via our new Experts Online Communities. They can ask questions, get technical advice and support from really experienced specialists in that area.
For this edition, we have also invited students to submit ideas which have the potential to be implemented immediately as well as more ‘blue sky’ futuristic ideas. This reflects Airbus’ own two-speed approach to innovation. We want to find better ways to fly, and that means looking for incremental improvements as well as seeking out the game-changing ideas with long-term potential to completely rethink how we fly.
Last, but not least, students who reach the final stage of the 2017 competition will be given the opportunity to visualise and build a prototype of their ideas on an Airbus site, alongside Airbus experts and then present them to the Jury. This will really reflect the way that innovative startups, for example in the manufacturing industry, are using new technologies to quickly move from design to prototyping and testing phases to get an idea off the ground.


Fly Your Ideas' 5th edition invites entries till 25 November 2016

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