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Interview of Mr. Piet-Christof Woelcken, Project Coordinator of the SARISTU project

Mr. Piet-Christof Woelcken (Airbus Operations GmbH), Project Coordinator of the SARISTU project, shares his experience on managing the most successful Level-2 project in Aviation funded under FP7.

Q1) SARISTU, undoubtedly one of the most successful Level-2 projects in Aviation funded under FP7, is soon to end. Having more or less dedicated the last 6 years to this endeavour and having spent endless hours managing and coordinating this project, do you think that in the end of the day it is worth it?
Absolutely! You do not embark on a major undertaking without utter conviction of success. But of course achievements do not just happen. They require more than just a big vision. The process of breaking down these visions into manageable blocks, aligned with the means available, which in turn are then separated into individual, contributing tasks alone requires a highly dedicated and mature team. And that is only for project preparation which is the foundation of any successful endeavour. With such an enthusiastic team project conduct may still be a lot of bloody hard work, but most importantly it is extremely rewarding. Imagine receiving a telephone call from one of your team leaders who has just realized that all the parts of the major demonstrator fall short of the required quality. Imagine that he has no solution as to how to achieve the required quality not only in time, but actually at all. And then imagine the entire team getting to work on the catastrophe, analysing the data, assessing the deficiencies, coming up with highly creative technical solutions and working away the showstopper until just two weeks after the initial warning, the situation is under control again. For some, this may be a simple feeling of relief when all is done and said. For me, it results in a great feeling of pride in the dedication and capabilities of the team, and a great feeling of gratitude for being allowed to play my part in the SARISTU family.

Of course I was avoiding the main question for a little while here. From a project point of view, we have achieved the vast majority of the projects objectives two months ahead of project closure. In many cases, we have exceeded the work required by the contract. But more important than the happiness of our principal customer and even more important than the satisfaction of the involved partner companies is the question as to what remains of the project after SARISTU. What did we bring to the scientific community? I am quite proud of the large number of technical and scientific publications as listed on our project website www.saristu.eu. And of course I am immensely proud of the SARISTU End of Project conference proceedings, to be published later this year, as a good starting point for further reading on all of the individual ways in which SARISTU has opened a realm of technical possibilities.

Q2) In your opinion, which are the most significant outcomes of the SARISTU project? Do you think that these outcomes are worth the effort and the budget spent by both the European Commission and the partners?

It is pretty much impossible for me to rank these as significant steps were made in all work areas. Looking at morphing, we have three main applications in the project. The Enhanced Adaptive Droop Nose team ran through immense test matrices to build on their work in the forerunner project SADE. While in SADE they had already shown that they are able succeed where others have failed for decades, namely the utilization of a suitable skin material translating airflow into lift, SARISTU enabled them to integrate further functionalities such as de-icing, lightning strike protection and erosion protection. If you keep in mind that the integration of a single additional function into a part squares the size of the problem, this is a tremendous achievement. With respect to the Advanced Trailing Edge Device, a very complex design had to address dynamic flight aspects, be manufactured and tested multiple times and we expect our ongoing analysis to verify that its impressive economic benefits are not just simulation results, but have been verified experimentally. By contrast, the simplicity of the Winglet Active Trailing Edge demonstrator is itself a major milestone as the development enabled the partners involved to go deeper on flight critical questions such as failure consequences and hazard elimination and of course the resulting design opportunities.

On the Structural Health Monitoring side, we were able to assess a large number of different damage detection and sizing algorithms, invented and matured a new and maintenance friendly way to apply and install fibre optics in an aircraft's manufacturing chain, integrated a whopping 584 acoustic damage detection sensors already during major part manufacturing, designed, built, assembled, tested and assessed multi-SHM equipped panels, investigated a large range of passive impact indicating surfaces concepts and, while we were at it, invented shape sensors specifically for the morphing trailing edge. There certainly were a lot of "firsts" in SARISTU regarding Structural Health Monitoring.

On the multifunctional materials side, we should compare the pre-SARISTU with the expected post-SARISTU world. At the beginning of SARISTU, Nanocomposites received a lot of attention due to the great improvements achievable at the time when loading resin systems with particles. However, at the time, the hype surrounding individual Nanoparticles decreased drastically when resin property improvements could not be translated to large, industrially meaningful laminates. This has now changed thanks to the combined efforts of the ELECTRICAL and SARISTU projects. We expect this success to be built upon in the successor project known as PLATFORM. Another important aspect with respect to multifunctional materials concerns co-bonded metal which was initially viewed very sceptically by some industrial partners but which has won increasing interest due to its fundamental simplicity.

Besides these technical achievements, we believe that SARISTU's one-dimensional approach to Quality, Time and Cost has supported the establishment of some "best-practices" in the conduct of collaborative, publicly funded research and development projects and is able to highlight further fundamental improvements to maximize the taxpayers' return-on-investment.

So with all of this under our belt: Yes, SARISTU is well worth the budget. If not even a little bit more.

Q3) SARISTU is a project dominated by industrial partners; however, there is also a significant academia participation. After several years of working together, how would you evaluate the contribution of the academic partners to the overall success of the project?

They are of fundamental importance. The age old "conflict" between "ivory tower" scientists and "oil and grease" industrialists is something we still occasionally have to read in the press. Personally however, I cannot say I really saw it in SARISTU. A team exhibiting unbalance will not get anywhere so it was of fundamental importance to set-up a team of individuals with their respective strengths. It was extremely refreshing to see how industrial academic institutions are able to think and, more importantly, act with industry in mind. At the same time, industrial partners brought highly academic experience into the project.

As an example, we had multi-national teams of academic researchers who had to set-up whole Nanocomposite manufacturing chains to supply core ingredients to the industrial scale demonstration exercises. In other cases, such as all Morphing related activities and large parts of our Structural Health Monitoring activities, the fundamental know-how and test capabilities of our academic partners enabled us to validate most of our developments. It would, quite simply, have been impossible to succeed without our academic partners in Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, Russia, the Czech Republic, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Israel.

Q4) As you surely know, the Level-2 tool as we were used to it no longer exists in the H2020 programme. This means that projects of the scale of SARISTU can no longer be funded. Do you think that this creates a gap, or can these activities be split among smaller projects in the frame of the collaborative calls and the CleanSky 2 programme?

I am of course heavily biased. With the great collaboration between FP7 projects and the success of SARISTU, I am sad to see the scope of level 2 projects decreasing drastically. While it may be tempting to think that many smaller projects could possibly replace a single larger one, this is sadly an illusion. We have found our large demonstrators to be a key driver in the developments. If these are missing from a Grant Agreements Description of Work, then the key final objectives of the work become blurred and in consequence, unachievable within an acceptable timeframe.

This places the responsibility on CleanSky 2. In particular within the dedicated platforms, its scope and vision actually strengthen the unifying character of disruptive demonstration exercises. The risks I currently see there really concern the organizational side. Even in a level 2 project, it is extremely challenging to integrate numerous in-development technologies. When the individual technology bricks come from different individual calls with varying degrees of interaction, this becomes an even greater challenge. This integration will hinge on both the empowerment and clarity of the individual demonstrators leadership already in the call specification. In addition, I am a strong believer in enabling people to do what they believe in and in supporting - and demanding of - them to do their best. Within a level 2 project this is still possible at a personal level. Within a program the size and scope of CleanSky 2, I expect this to be many times more challenging and requires a highly professional organization acting rapidly in particular to emerging issues.

So for me it is clear that the downsized level 2's will not be able to fill the gap. CleanSky 2 on the other hand intends to fill and even exceed this gap. Success in this mission will depend largely on its ability to integrate the people who deliver the individual constituents across real and artificial organizational boundaries.

Q5) Judging from the current success rates of the H2020 aviation collaborative calls, do you think they remain a "friendly" environment for innovative research activities?

In itself, low success rates do not indicate an unfriendly environment but rather an incredible demand and an easy, perhaps even "friendly" submission process.

"Friendly" may however not be in anybody's best interest. From my own experience in running a small, call based, company internal research program, I urge caution when the success rate drops below 1/8th. Throughout 4 years in which our Research Program was active, we were surprised that the higher competition that a lower success rate implies did not actually improve the overall programs performance. Indeed we observed an increased likelihood of project failure when the specific calls success rate was both above or below the sweet range. I would dare to speculate that this is a result of the proposal assessment which, no matter how refined, always incurs an element of chance. It would be interesting to get a mathematicians take on that observation. With the wealth of data available to the European Commission from past programs, it may be possible to derive sweet spots for these much larger and much more complex programmes before raising proposal submission requirements to achieve this sweet range.

Q6) Throughout the duration of the 7th Framework Programme there were cases of extremely successful research projects but also cases of projects, the results of which were of questionable value. In a  nutshell, what do you think makes the difference between a successful and a not-so-successful research project?

There are many reasons for possible project failures and one key aspect is of course to avoid such pitfalls. This sounds easier than it is done though as the most critical aspects, such as a changing project environments, are typically outside the control of the direct project participants.

As to what can be controlled, there are a few keywords worth of note.

Everybody has heard of LEAN. Many peoples interpretation of this is to cut away boxes in charts and lines in tables. This is sadly misdirected. In a nutshell, LEAN actually means "having what you need, when you need it". So in project planning, you need a minimum level of granularity ensuring that each participant knows what is expected and what means are available to her or him. In the design phase, it means that all specifications and requirements are available, not just the top 10 or 100. In the assembly phase, it means that absolutely all parts will be available exactly at the right time and of the required quality. After all, it is of no use to have the big parts but no rivets. So if you want to succeed, understand that you must ensure that every project participant has the information, capabilities, materials and means when she or he needs them at their fingertips.

On the soft side, keep in mind that it is people, not spreadsheet, who deliver a project. People have vision, objectives, creativity and a strong internal drive to succeed and need to have their achievements recognized. As the saying goes, organizations are large, slow and not very clever, whereas people are small, fast and smart. So a successful organization builds on and supports its people. If you want your teams to do what they do best, do not bog them down, for example with surplus administration or one-way reporting. Where you do need to tie them up in administrative details, explain the "why" while doing your best to help and support them. This supporting and serving attitude from project management will also help the teams to overcome emerging crises.

Another key factor is the integration of people as individuals in multi-disciplinary, holistic teams. Integrated demonstrators are very useful for this as the task of jointly building these devices enforces people to think out of their personal boxes. For example, material experts will need to understand very early in the project what specific design rules mean for the exploitation of their materials improved performance. Similarly, the need to have repair solutions in place already at the demonstrator assembly step serves as an eye opener to many experts. Tacted quality gates were used very effectively in SARISTU for this purpose.

Finally, if you fail, fail early. SARISTU became successful mainly thanks to the significant effort put in during the first six months of the project when the first holistic quality gate had to be passed. This demand led to some tears at the time but they saved us from becoming really miserable later on in the project.

In our project, we did not reinvent the wheel but merely did our best to implement best management practise as explained in more detail in the upcoming proceedings. There are a few additional things known from other Public Private Partnership initiatives which I'd like to try out in future projects, but of course this would require a sufficiently sized undertaking.

Date posted: November 24, 2015, 1:18 pm

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