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  • United Technologies

Innovating at speed

How does a legendary legacy brand remain relevant? By thinking like a startup.

Innovating at speed
Artist’s rendering of the UTC flight demonstrator, a hybrid-electric test aircraft that the company is targeting to take flight by 2022.

An 85-year-old company with 240,000 employees might not seem like the most likely disrupter in our high-speed, innovate-or-die world. Yet, that’s exactly how Jason Chua characterized United Technologies Corporation (UTC) at a Fast Company panel in Austin in March. Chua, the executive director of United Technologies Advanced Projects (UTAP), describes how innovation is embedded in the company’s DNA. But Chua understands that a company that includes legacy brands such as Pratt & Whitney, Rockwell Collins (now Collins Aerospace), Otis, and Carrier, and a history of creating everything from elevators to aerospace parts—it outfitted NASA astronauts in their spacewalk suits—might be better known for its stable reliability than startup-style disruption.

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Enter UTAP. “We built this new group, United Technologies Advanced Projects, to help UTC think and act more like a startup,” Chua told the panel audience. “To take a look at areas where we might be vulnerable to disruption or where we can leverage internal resources to create new product opportunities.”

Chua had just returned from visiting various UTC sites, where he asked employees at all levels of the company about ways in which UTC was falling short of optimizing its rich resources. At the UTC-sponsored panel, Chua hinted at a couple of major projects that were in the works. Indeed, just weeks later, UTAP announced its first groundbreaking initiative: Project 804, a hybrid-electric flight demonstrator that UTC will fly by 2022.

The demonstrator will be built on a turboprop airplane but will employ an electric motor optimized for takeoff and climb that augments a smaller and more efficient gas engine. Once at cruising altitude, the electric motor shuts off, leaving the plane’s gas engine to cover the lower power needs of normal cruise. This hybrid configuration will allow fuel consumption to be cut by 30% over a one-hour flight. “[UTC leadership] had the vision that electrification was a design space that UTC had to continue leading,” says Jean Thomassin, Project 804’s director and mastermind behind the concept. “UTC has the unique expertise to make high-power electrical systems and engines—and integrate them together into a benchmark hybrid-electric propulsion system. That’s rather rare in the world of aviation.”

Ready for takeoff

How did UTC get here? For starters, UTAP busted bureaucracy. Legal wrangles over documents that would often get mired in the review process have been replaced by one-page, electronic NDAs that are approved within one day.

Chua also told the Fast Company panel that he came to the realization that a project could be moved along more quickly by identifying and working with the top talent in the world, whether in-house or external. “We can work with a really good partner and collaborate with them to move forward faster and bring new perspectives and new capabilities,” he said.

The hybrid-electric innovation is a prime example of this new way of doing business—once Thomassin came up with the idea, they were off and running. “We got the go-ahead for that project in the fall of 2018,” he says. “Very soon, we needed partners. For many projects, we might have to wait a month or more for an NDA before talking to anyone. But in this case the contracts could be turned around in a day or two. That was a huge enabler.”

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The hybrid-electric concept will work particularly well for short-haul intercity transport and for small airports with short runways. “The takeoff portion and the early climb is where you need a lot of power for a very short duration,” Thomassin says. “This is exactly what a battery is best at—a burst of power on demand. If you don’t need its energy for too long, then the battery size can become manageable.”

The project’s name reflects the distance—804 miles—between the Pratt & Whitney facility in Montreal, Quebec, and the Collins Aerospace facility in Rockford, Illinois, the two hubs for this innovation. UTAP wanted to telegraph that while the mission is hyper-focused and unified, it also incorporates decentralized talent centers.

In addition to the innovation of the hybrid plane itself, Project 804 will also realize benefits of its component parts, such as the motor controller, the motor, and the battery. “Everyone’s pushing the [state of the] art in the components,” Thomassin says. “By the end, the technology’s going to progress to a point that it could be scalable,” offering benefits across a range of aircraft sizes, from general aviation to large commercial jets.

Spin-off innovation might come quickly. Eventually, the battery might even recharge in flight, similar to how braking can charge a hybrid car’s battery. “During the plane’s descent we could manage the propeller angle using potential energy,” Thomassin says. “Trading altitude to reclaim energy.”

Fast, but safe

For Thomassin, who has been with the company 20 years, working on something so unique and forward thinking is a dream come true—and one he can share. “We have a good mix of experienced engineers and people early in their careers,” he says. “So, it’s a great opportunity for newer engineers.”

Chua recognizes that UTAP’s liberating effect on innovation can’t come at the expense of UTC’s well-earned reputation for dependability. “We still exist within a mature company, and we need to make sure that we continue to do the big things the right way,” Chua said in Austin. “We want to make decisions fast and execute quickly without too much cumbersome process. However, if there are things that are truly safety critical, you need to make sure they undergo the right quality and safety processes.”

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So has Elon Musk tweeted his envy yet? Thomassin laughs at the idea but admits he is aware of the buzz. “We have become this serious player in the [hybrid-electric aviation] game,” he says. “On the first day of the announcement, we had startups wanting to talk to us about eventual partnerships for their projects—like flying cars. We are open to listening and discussing, but we have to be laser-focused on getting this project flying, very quickly. When we do this, then even more good things will happen.”

This article was created for and commissioned by United Technologies Corporation.

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