Trading Performance for Better Design


Phil Windley and Rick Adam at the Business Ignitor talk.

It's a timeworn tale in the world of computers: a new technological advance relaxes some design constraints and some of the increased headroom is used by the designers to add modularity of the design with abstract interfaces. Only this time, the story isn't about computers--it's about airplanes.

Yesterday I flew my plane up to Ogden to moderate a discussion with Rick Adams, CEO of Adam Aircraft. If you're not a pilot, you probably haven't heard of Adam Air, but it's one of the hot new companies in aviation. I was surprised to learn that Rick isn't a lifelong aircraft industry type. Rather, he's a CIO turned software entrepreneur who took up flying in the early 90's. He was fed-up with not being able to buy the plane he wanted, so he decided to build it.

It's hard for a software techie to understand, but the pace of innovation in aircraft is painfully slow. If you stuck a 1945 pilot in my Turbo Arrow, he or she would feel perfectly at home (as long as you turned the GPS off). Aircraft manufacturing has been dominated by the FAA who sees it's job as making sure no one ever flies. Keep that in mind next time someone proposes that we need government regulation to make computers secure or protect data privacy.

Adam Aircraft is building two planes, the A-500, a conventional engine twin, and the A-700, a personal jet. To give you an idea how moribund the aviation industry is, Adam Air is the first airplane manufacturer to certify a complex aircraft ("complex" has a formal meaning in aviation) in over 40 years. Yup, no new designs have been approved for four decades. Adam Air has spent over $80 million getting the A-500 certified. So, before you can ever deliver your first aircraft to a customer, you're out $80 million. That's got to give an investor pause.

Another surprise to non-pilots is just how wimpy private planes are. They don't have much payload capacity. For example, if I put four adults in my plane, I can't fill the fuel tanks more than 3/4's full. Consequently, airplane manufacturers try to shave weight where ever they can. Rick told me about an engineer who wouldn't design the wiring harness that goes from the front of the plane to the back until he had an exact measurement. Rick said "make it six inches longer" and the engineer balked. A few more inches is a few more ounces of weight.

You can imagine in this kind of environment, how aeronautical engineers would feel about modular designs. The same way 1960's programmers felt about operating systems. Nice, but way too expensive in terms of performance. Every plane design is a one-off; hardwired in the same way that a software developer would handcraft assembly language code when performance really matters.

The A-700, is going through certification now, but the process shouldn't be as expensive. Why? Because of the modular design. Many of the components in the A-700, like the landing gear, have already been certified as part of the A-500 certification. The designers were careful to create the interfaces between the components in such a way that they could retain their certification as long as they were used within certain design envelops.

Why the move to modular designs now? Partly because someone with modular design expertise came along and didn't know how airplanes "have always been built." And partly because of a technology that enables this innovation: composite materials. Composites don't directly result in modular architectures, but since they weigh less for an equivalently strong member than aluminum, some of the weight constraints that designers have always lived with can be relaxed and that enables more modular design.