When the novel coronavirus pandemic curtailed travel, Collins Aerospace cabin management system (CMS) experts had to figure out a new way to run tests with customers. Typically, Collins would invite customer pilots, crew, principals, and the dealer who sold the Venue CMS to the company’s Cedar Rapids, Iowa headquarters.
The testing takes up to two days, depending on the complexity of the CMS and involves hands-on trials of the switches and controls, running on hardware installed on racks instead of in the airplane. The tests allow users to try out the software configuration and line replaceable units (LRUs) as if installed in the airplane and suggest any changes before the installation takes place.
“We invite them to touch the GUI [graphical user interface] to make sure everything flows,” said Stephanie Cooper, cabin marketing manager for business and regional avionics. “We want to make sure it operates like they expect it to.”
During the pandemic, traveling to Cedar Rapids is difficult and many companies have restricted employee travel. To alleviate the backlog of Venue preview tests, Collins engineers deployed the GUI preview tool, software that runs on a PC and allows much the same testing as if the customer was able to trial the hardware on-site. The tool replicates the exact software configuration as specified during the purchase process. “It just as if it’s on their aircraft,” said Cooper.
The GUI preview tool doesn’t show the output of the action but does give feedback to the customer. For example, the customer might push a button to turn on a light. They won’t see an actual light switch on in the program but will see the color of the button change, just as it would in the aircraft. Calling up the Airshow moving-map display is a flow of selections, but again, there is no display of the actual Airshow output as it would appear on a monitor in the aircraft.
It is important for the dealer to be involved in the testing, Cooper explained, because they are installing the Venue CMS. The dealer wants to make sure the customer is happy with the configuration before the installation is done because this is a big job involving a lot of work in the cabin interior.
Customers not only learn how their new Venue CMS works but also might want to make changes. “We’re validating that we understood their requirements,” she said, “but also it’s a great time for that ‘aha!’ moment for the customer. Most times we can make on-the-fly changes.” This helps eliminate post-work requests.
Engineers had developed the GUI preview tool well before the pandemic, but it wasn’t being used that much because customers were traveling to Cedar Rapids for the testing. “We weren’t using it to its full potential,” she said. “Covid-19 pushed it over the edge. We had to be able to do things virtually to deliver that software configuration to the customer.” The alternative would have been to set up video cameras pointed at the hardware rig in Cedar Rapids, then have engineers pushing buttons to show the customer how the CMS works.
The tool offers other benefits, Cooper said, such as preliminary system design. “It’s helpful as a sales tool to educate the customer on the answers they’re going to need, so we can roll out those requirements accordingly.”
With the GUI preview tool, travel costs are eliminated, both for the customer and the dealer, saving them both time and money. “It will be interesting to see how this rolls out,” she said. “There will be an opportunity to use this more often, but it depends on whether customers want to make that leap. We always found it valuable being in person. But should cleanliness be an issue or concern, I think we’ll continue to have this available for customers.” As of mid-May, the Collins team had conducted eight Venue previews or virtual installations.
Not only has customer feedback been positive, but the GUI preview tool allowed Collins to conduct business as usual. “We’re continuing to deliver and execute on time,” she said. “March and April were key for us. We had a lot of programs scheduled for delivery, and we didn’t see any delays because of Covid on the execution side. I think as things continue for the next few months, this will evolve.”
For salespeople, the preview tool could prove invaluable, as they will be able to do remote presentations. Previously, customers would visit the salesperson or dealer for an in-person session using a Venue demo system with touchscreens. Now salespeople can give a virtual demo by sharing their screen with the customer, or Collins could even send the GUI preview tool directly to the customer.