Inside Boeings Big Data Strategy: A Q

September 10, 2014 • Blog Post • by Lauren Williamson, Fast Company Content Studios


Boeing may be the worlds largest manufacturer of airplanes, but its fast becoming a tech company in disguise. Behind the scenes, the $86.6 billion behemoth is applying predictive analytics to manage an enormous global supply chain (nearly 22,000 suppliers and partners) focused on the highly complex production of planes and satellites; leveraging data for more efficient flights; and racing to stay ahead of potential threats to its national-security work. (Boeing is one of the largest defense contractors in the United States.)


As chief information officer Ted Colbert says, with considerable understatement, his group isnt just responsible for managing the companys PCs. Colbert shared with HPE Matter how the technology that consumers dont see is shaping their flying experience, Boeings operations, and the aerospace industry as a whole.


How are Boeings internal technology needs changing as the business continues to evolve?


The needs of technology really reflect the needs of our culture and how we move faster. If you think about your experience flying, we influence the ability to make sure theres real-time access to the performance of the plane and the ability to predict things we need to do to the plane to make sure it stays on time, all the time. Our newest planes generate massive amounts of data from sensors that we use to be more predictive about maintenance and other things we need to do with the plane.


How about technology that assists in production?


We focus on things like more factory automation, leveraging data from machine to machine, and using predictive analytics to keep our operations running as smoothly as possible. Its very public that we have a very large backlog. Our intent is to make sure that we deliver every plane in that backlog, obviously with high quality, but also in a very profitable way.


How has security changed as various parts of the operation have become digital?


Obviously, companies like ours spend a lot of time fortifying the walls of the companythe access and threat management, focus on advanced persistent threats, etc. The other piece is in our products, and we have to make sure they are secure, and that we protect our customers, our customers customers, ourselves and our country.


What are some of the security issues unique to the aerospace industry?


We have a very networked supply chain. Were all inextricably connected to one another and we use similar suppliers as our competitors. The fact that we have to communicate so much as a company creates a threat because we have a tremendous amount of intellectual property to protect. The IP is the key to how we make planes and protect them. In the defense world, the IP is very different. We have access to information that involves defending the United States and other customers around the world. We even partner up with some of our competitors on defense contracts. If one person is negatively affected with a security issue, it becomes a concern for all of us.


Do you detect a lot of threats trying to get onto your network?


It's constant. I don't think any of my peers in the industry would deny that its an ongoing, constant battle. Protecting the blueprints and the technologies we use in many of the defense products is extremely important to the national security of the country, as is helping to protect the networks through which people communicate. The last thing you want is people listening in on your conversations, right?


Our tools have gotten better. But we still have to make sure we have good hygiene in the company relative to the assets and make sure we have good processes in place. We also have to make sure we have really good threat management in place. That's about as much detail as I'll give.


How much more sophisticated are the threats?


They get more and more sophisticated all the time. You have to think, too, our systems are becoming more and more complex, and so much more available; it actually widens the opportunity to threaten companies like ours. People figure out ways to do things differently every day. The understanding of technology is much broader than it has ever been before. The Internet and other educational platforms let people learn in lots of detail more about the technologies than ever before, which people find ways to exploit. The need to respond faster and faster is becoming more important.


How do you see your role in Boeings business strategy?


The strategic value comes in where I leverage information technology to drive growth and profitability, and mitigate risk in ways that move the business units to the next level. For example, how do we leverage mobile, analytics and big data to drive revenue and profitability to the company? We have to stay focused on doing the things that demonstrate technology as a strategic differentiator, both in our products and services and in the way we run the company.


Which trend will significantly drive transportation in the coming years?


The data is going to be gold relative to running a transportation company, in particular an airline. The better companies can leverage data to get ahead of challenges, to understand the customer better, to run the business more efficiently . . . I think those are the folks who are going to win.

 HPE provides numerous airlines, including United Airlines, Emirates Airlines and American Airlines, with the hardware, software and services needed to facilitate nearly every aspect of air travel, from ticketing to flight scheduling.