How will digitalisation affect future generations of aerospace workers?


Royal Aeronautical Society Head of Skills and Careers, Rosalind Azouzi looks 20 years ahead to consider what essential skills may be required by a future aerospace workforce

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The Millennial Generation

With 2017 marking 20 years of this dedicated resource, how will things change over the next two decades? Much has been made of the preferences of the now well-documented generation of millennials – born in the late 80s-early 2000s who have not known a world without the Internet, are in constant communication through social media and have access to high level technology which even in the early 90s would have seemed farfetched.

However, the incorporation of technology into our daily lifestyles is not restricted to millennials. Businesses across all sectors are being urged to place customers at the centre of everything and the expectations that people have from daily lives, such as transformed retail experiences and instant responses, pervade into all areas of aerospace and aviation – whether a the client of a manufacturer or booking a flight, individuals have high expectations that new technology will make things better, faster and have little patience when this doesn’t happen, in the workplace as well as in their personal lives.

Aerospace Technology

Aerospace, often seen as a sector which is, by nature of its significant barriers to entry, slower to respond to change, has in fact also seen significant changes and often driven the technologies we all take for granted, while air travel has been transformed by the rise of low cost airlines and online booking systems, with UK airline travel doubling in the last 20 years.

At the recent Fujitsu World Tour conference in London, July 2017, James Johnston, Head of Products and Security UK & Ireland, argued “all companies are technology companies now”. Other speakers argued that “c‎onnectivity changes nature of business” and that for manufacturers, “everything is now from customer’s viewpoint rather than the supply chain”. And, while artificial intelligence may be advancing at rapid rates, it is, “still difficult to replicate 100BN brain cells – AI also does not have common sense which humans develop through learning” – so digital technologies are here, but human talent is still crucial for innovation and making effective use of them.

The buzz around digitalisation raises some interesting questions. Will aerospace companies move away from the aerospace label in future years or rather adopt digital methods to their current design and production techniques and business models? Conversely, could technology companies transform themselves into aerospace manufacturers with internet giants such as Amazon developing drone technology, Google revisiting wearable technology and Paypal and Facebook founders developing new space launchers? Or will future global giants have multiple, cross-sector specialisms reflecting technology transfer and customer opportunities?

Which education policy this year?

Changes in Government have led to changes in education policy which also have an impact on the skills pipeline. In the UK, during the first decade after the Careers Centre launch policy emphasis was getting 50% of young people into university. Now, in 2017 the emphasis has moved to apprenticeships, putting employers in the driving seat for defining the qualifications and occupational standards for their sector. While many welcome this new emphasis, which is also accompanied by a new apprenticeships funding model through the Apprenticeship Levy, Lord Dyson recently wrote to The Times critical of the new model in that it may not provide enough support for educating the next generation of innovators and PhD holders.

What is clear is that in this information age, there are some clear trends both outside and within the sector, potentially providing opportunities for new market entrants and entrepreneurs and new business models for traditional aerospace companies with the customer at the heart of innovative thinking. The next step will be to evaluate what skills implications these have and how training providers, young people and the existing workforce will adapt to changing needs.

The Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) has been examining these themes in detail. It published an INSIGHT paper in 2017 on Digital Transformation and recently ran a First Thursday event on ‘Servitization’, a new business model proposition for manufacturers inspired by the success of Rolls-Royce and its TotalCare programme, benefiting from new IT solutions.


While some argue that the phrases ‘Digitalisation’, ‘digital transformation’ and so on are simply ways for technology companies to badge a whole series of technological development in other sectors, IT development is having a profound effect on many aspects of the aerospace and aviation sector.

For manufacturers, digitalisation may have a very different meaning to other sectors. The recent ATI Digital Transformation paper highlights four key areas which could be transformed within aerospace through digitalisation, namely, “supply chain integration; servitization opportunities; enabling disruption through new products, delivery and commercial capabilities”. The ATI paper also highlights the need for aerospace to face up to the changes which digitalisation could bring about, such as an Uber-style challenge to traditional working methods of the sector, in fact it highlights the development work which Uber has been financing to bring drone style taxis to market (another example of a technology company – with no traditional manufacturing base – moving into engineering design).

Using the ATI project portfolio as a sample, the ATI estimates that “around 35 of 160 projects have a digital element” with “increased efficiency, as opposed to growth […] clearly the main focus of these projects.” The paper highlights key successes in which aerospace manufacturers have already used new technology to make improvements, such as Rolls-Royce, who have been able to pull together and analyse vast data sets from different departments such as design, manufacture and through-life services using Big Data analytical methods.‎

Elsewhere, Meggitt has worked closely with Fujitsu to produce solutions for improved carbon fibre storage which removes the potential for human error and lost stock as well as developing real-time tracking solutions to improve manufacturing processes. Fujitsu argues that supply chain improvement can be achieved through sharing interdependent data to find representation of shared problems which may be solved by digital solutions or new technology.

Digital trends such as creating ‘digital twins’ to provide virtual models of real-world products, the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) where products are inter-connected, and can ‘talk’ to each other, align well to aerospace which has led the way in fields such as flight simulation and real-time engine health monitoring solutions. In fact, aerospace may be already more ‘digital’ than it’s given credit for and can now take these processes further with the increasing processing power enabled through cloud-based computing and integrated micro-chips.

Creating digital trust

However, the ATI warns that making digital solutions work for aerospace requires creating a ‘digital mindset’ within companies and their staff. In particular, in technology companies the use of ‘open source’ software whereby developers openly share programming, the ATI highlights, has been transferred to innovative processes at Tesla, owned by PayPal founder Elon Musk, in developing its driverless car technology. The ATI asks if aerospace, known for its reluctance to share, can embrace this approach to enable step changes in new technology for benefit to the sector as a whole, leading to a culture of ‘digital trust’?

Cloud-based computing also offers aerospace manufacturers the opportunity to create more flexible and collaborative design work spaces. The ATI paper argues that “Connecting workstations to products and processes can have a profound effect on quality, enhance operator capability and create a flexible, dynamic work area.”

More dynamic workplace

Taking this argument one step further, greater connectivity – particularly to the live end product and other areas of the supply chain – and new workplace technologies, such as interactive tablets or virtual/augmented reality headsets‎, within aerospace may create a more dynamic workplace and improve staff morale as well as support flexible and remote working patterns to attract and retain talented staff, supporting inclusion and diversity strategies, particularly for those with family and caring commitments. This may also address research which indicates millennials also place work-life-balance as equal importance to, or even more important, than remuneration packages.‎

Furthermore, one of the key issues among early career design engineers using RAeS Careers services has been a feeling of disconnection to the product and a ‘call centre environment’ in today’s design offices featuring rows and rows of PCs, far off from a live aircraft environment.

Ensuring aerospace remains attractive to new talent is important. Recent media reports have highlighted the appeal that technology companies like Google have transmitted to STEM graduates through publicising creative, collaborative workspaces, free catering and flexibility with working patterns, often taking STEM graduates’ interest away from traditional graduate employers, even the lucrative financial service sector which has traditionally been blamed from draining engineering talent. At the other end of the pipeline, education needs equip young people with the skills to adopt and use digital technology in a way which adds value reflect the skills which new technology needs, not only the technical skills but the mindset and workplace expectations of new entrants to ensure that work is a two-way process and not a glorified virtual reality playground.

Nonetheless, cybersecurity is key for sensitive sectors like aerospace and air transport, creating another skills requirement. The ATI paper also highlights the rise of a new member of the senior leadership team, the Chief Digital Officer – usually from a non-aerospace background, who leads and monitors digital transformation within the organisation, data protection legislation conformity and cybersecurity.


Fujitsu argued at its recent conference that digital disruption leads to breaking value chains and business models. The potential for aerospace manufacturers to adopt servitization business models, following on from the success which Rolls-Royce have had, and taking advantage of digital technologies such as IoT, enhanced sensors, cloud computing, health monitoring solutions etc. may also lead to changing skills needs for the industry. In particular, at a recent ATI First Thursday event, the impact on the changed business models which servitization brings filters throughout the supply chain as manufacturers of all sizes begin to offer customers a through-life service, with the product built in, rather than the product itself as a one-off transaction. With the emphasis on through-life solutions with maintenance, repair and overhaul also part of the service proposition, whether provided directly through the prime or Tier 1 manufacturer, or through an approved supplier with a traditional MRO background, such as the Boeing GoldCare service model, the potential to transform aerospace companies and MRO provision could have a significant impact on skills, not only traditional engineering design and maintenance skills but also those in financial modelling, sales and marketing, and is a theme we will be picking up in early 2018.

Disrupting business models

It’s not only in the engineering sector where digital can create disruption and new business models. At the consumer end, companies like Stratajet have developed new business solutions through algorithm based technology which have the potential to open up markets to new customers, in the case of Stratajet identifying available seats on corporate jets at prices similar to business and first class airline rates, opening up the bizav market to a new client base and potentially disrupting airline business travel in the coming years. Moreover, speaking at the 2016 EBACE conference, Stratajet founder and CEO Jonny Nicol emphasised the very different business culture and leadership style he has implemented to reflect the changing priorities of the millenial generation keen to work in this type of ‘start-up’ environment.

Market disruption can be very appealing to young people. At the RAeS Ballantyne 2017, aerospace graduate Shefali Sharma highlighted the motivation that working for a small start-up company like Oxford Space Systems gives her and the growing number of ‘new space’ start-ups in the UK taking advantage of the lower barriers to entry provided by smaller scale space technology which entrepreneurs can take advantage of. As Sharma pointed out, market disruptors can quickly grow into market leaders, with a different approach, greater ease with new technology, and appeal to new talent, suggesting that traditional aerospace and aviation firms look to incorporate some of this entrepreneurial culture where possible into their own businesses.

Talk to the ‘bot’ (but is the human listening?)

Interestingly, when it comes to careers and skills, larger aerospace employers, like many other sectors, have embraced digital technology in one area – online recruitment tools. Online application forms are not new, and as most graduates and university careers advisors would agree, while they may provide employers with a more effective way to deal with high volume applications, they can present many barriers to applicants. Online systems offer employers many advantages – from being able to stop demand at the source such as checking nationality, blocking applicants with minimum degree or even pre-degree level educational requirements, but even when applicants are able to continue their online applications, the forms can take many hours to complete and appear sometimes to offer instant rejection. While many recruiters have long argued that computer-based scanning techniques are not used, it may be that some at least are using similar technology to search engine optimisation (SEO) tools used by Google, Bing etc. where the search engine ‘bot’, or programme, is ‘reading’ and ‘analysing’ the data inputted by the applicant. Already the implication of SEO technology is having an impact on how website content writers are having to write content, so it not only appeals to the target audience, but also achieves the search engine ‘bot’ approval thus resulting high rankings in search results, but this is not always the same as making best use of language or phraseology.

With online recruitment forms, there is a danger that this technology may supercede human analysis and require applicants to complete forms in a style which they would not normally use. It may be the only logical approach for employers who receive thousands of applications each year, but given that aptitude tests are moving online, there is some concern that those who are succeeding will be those best adapted to using the online systems, rather than applicants who are right for the job. It’s interesting that Stratajet, essentially a technology company for aviation with strong appeal among young professionals, use a much simpler online system connected to LinkedIn, while Oxford Space Systems asked applicants with interesting CVs to make a short video about themselves. Ensuring that systems can adapt along with society, reflecting the diversity of today’s young people and the industry’s evolving customer base, is essential to ensure digital technology for recruitment and selection enables talent and skills from all backgrounds to succeed.

Digital empathy

If, as proponents of digital technology suggest, customer satisfaction and experience is to drive business, and AI has a long way to go before it can ‘feel’ or learn from experience, tomorrow’s engineers and business managers will need in addition to traditional knowledge and role-related competencies, key skills associated with customer focus including empathy, communication, negotiation, and ability to empower their teams, as well as new technical skills in areas such as robotics, big data, Internet of Things, VR, drones and wearables‎.

Of course, there are exciting developments in other areas including all-electric and hybrid aircraft systems, intelligent airport security systems, drones and ‘new space’. Aerospace and aviation as whole remains the driver of change, is taking significant steps in inclusion and diversity and main while maintaining its culture of innovation, safety and security.

By continuing to apply innovative solutions and cross-sectoral learning to develop new aircraft and aerospace products and with digital technologies likely to create new opportunities across the whole sector, those thinking of entering the industry today can look forward to an exciting and rewarding career over the next 20 years.

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