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Sean Macleod of Stratos Product Development interviews Harish Rao, director of business analytics at Boeing.
Sean MacLeod of Stratos Product Development, left, interviews Harish Rao, director of business analytics at Boeing. Photo: Ashley Genevieve / Technology Alliance

The name Boeing typically conjures images of airplanes, defense systems and space capsules.

But with 8,000 to 10,000 sensors on each aircraft Boeing manufactures, the world’s largest aerospace company is piloting itself into a new realm, one where it harnesses massive amounts of data to improve airplane fuel efficiency, speed up delivery of parts and even help pick better flight paths so you can get to your destination on time.

Harish Rao, director of business analytics at Boeing, offered a rare glimpse into the company’s big data efforts at the Technology Alliance’s Insights to Impact conference in Seattle on Tuesday.

According to Rao, the analysis of data — along with a “lean” development process — is becoming an important component of Boeing.

“We have been a really process driven company, but we are really starting to transform more into a data and insight culture,” said Rao. For example, Boeing is working alongside customers like Alaska Airlines to provide a full-package of real-time data analytics, offering everything from how to optimize fuel management to the best routes to fly during certain weather conditions.

“On a plane where we have 8,000 sensors capturing the 8,000 data points per second … if we extrapolate that for more than 5,000 planes … and optimizing that and providing sort of real-time optimization, (that) is where there is a huge benefit for our customers,” said Rao. “But it is also a great opportunity for our company as far as a revenue generation standpoint.”

In total, Rao said Boeing is sitting on a treasure trove of about 100 Petabytes of data, and now the company is looking to unlock that in new ways, benefitting its carrier customers and future flyers.

Harish Rao
Harish Rao

Of course, when you’re dealing with the life and death scenario of flight, lean development principles and the use of data to make key decisions takes on added weight. Asked what keeps him awake at night, Rao noted that is is the “accuracy of the predictions” that Boeing’s data scientists are working on.

He contrasted the importance of the Boeing predictions with those developed at online retailers, noting that if you don’t happen to buy a recommended book “nothing happens.”

“But, if I say you can fly another 2,000 miles, and the fuel ends in 1,000 miles, well, guess what? The plane will crash, and everyone will die,” said Rao. “That is a very different scenario.”

Certainly, the life or death situations faced by Boeing make for an interesting challenge when it comes to making sense of data. While some non-aerospace companies may take an 80-20 approach to developing and testing new ideas — hoping 80 percent turn into a success — Boeing employs a “99-1 approach” on its new ideas. As data scientists at Boeing mine information, he said the key is to strive to “get very accurate results and yet be agile and nimble, because typically they don’t go hand-in-hand.”

That mentality represents a huge culture change at Boeing, which was founded in 1916. Rao said that the mindset really started to shift in earnest about two years ago at the company, adding that it is not “easy to change the culture or the direction.” He said most of the data science analysis that his team is working on takes place in a six to eight week timeframe, compared to more than a year previously.

“Value is being realized on a very short time frame,” he said.

boeing-analyticsEven though companies like Facebook or Google or Amazon.com can move faster, Boeing said it is working hard to embrace a data-driven culture, one which mirrors that of a startup. Now, he said Boeing often proactively looks to “understand what the data is telling us” — rather than waiting for a customer to bring up a problem, forcing engineers to find a solution.

For example, Boeing is working hard with its carrier partners to make sure that the airplanes are constantly in flight, since the biggest loss for an airline occurs when it is parked at a gate or sitting in a maintenance hangar.

“The best time for an airline is when it is in the air. If it could be in the air for 24 hours, they’d probably prefer it, but unfortunately that is not a reality,” he said. “From that standpoint, it is really optimizing the route, so you can make sure that there is minimal downtime, as well as the data can tell us, based on what some of their other competitors are flying in that area, what is the connection they want to look at or the weather patterns they have. We have data coming in from a variety of these different avenues, and we package them up and provide a valuable insight. But the airlines that actually take that, deploy it … and really use it on a daily basis, you can clearly see them coming out as significant winners, almost to the tune of 10 percent to 20 percent improvement in margins.”

As it relates to the comfort of passengers on commercial flights, Rao said that airlines are making strides in how they utilize data to enhance the customer experience.

“They are starting to look at, based on the data, coming up with complete personalization,” he said. “Really understanding from the customer who has put in their flight information It is almost an experience, so the types of channels, the types of music, the variety of information that is available, for say an international flight, is all customized based on your behavior or your profile. Some airlines try to order food you might want, so if you like Sushi or something else. We have the data, and we share the data. It is just about how best do you use it.”

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