Peter Seidel builds flying taxis. After 20 years with BMW, the IT manager has taken over the CIO job at aircraft manufacturer Lilium. Uncertain outcome. Why is he doing this to himself?
Peter Seidel, Lilium
Lilium from Weßling near Munich builds vertical take-off aircraft with battery operation. Again: Vertical take-off aircraft with battery operation! Drones with battery operation are known – but they carry at most one camera. Only the “Volocopter” from Karlsruhe and similar “Drones” lift up people – but even in their most chic future scenarios they can’t get any further than 30 kilometres. Helicopters with combustion engines can continue, but are loud. Vertical take-off aircraft can go further, but are really loud. When a conventional vertical take-off plane takes off, the ears of all those present within a radius of 500 meters fly away.
And exactly this technology is now supposed to revolutionize the mobility of our inner cities?
Five people fit into the small capsule with the four stub wings and the 36 so-called “engines”. Everyone in Weßling talks about the jet, but with these engines no kerosene is added, compressed and burned. The wings look like Swiss cheese whose holes have been stuffed with fans from old PCs. The engines first blow air downwards and then – after take-off – backwards, just like vertical take-off aircraft do. That doesn’t make more noise than a hairdryer, according to the marketing department. The engineers are working hard to lower the noise level further. However, it has not yet been measured by an approval authority. It’s still too early for that.
The engines are powered by lithium batteries, which are expected to carry 300 kilometers. The website https://lilium.com/ is full of scenarios that make the target audience in New York, London, Shanghai or even Munich cheer: In ten minutes from the city centre to the airport or in an hour to Frankfurt – both at once. Drone builders are already happy when they get to the next airport. Other aircraft pioneers are more likely to rely on hydrogen for this range, while established suppliers of course rely on kerosene.
And the doubts go on: One of the five passengers has to do the pilot, that’s the way it is according to German aviation law. Although the Lilium Jet could fly autonomously, it is not allowed to. In German airspace, there is still one person who has to watch over whether the technology really works – especially when other people are on board. But the jet should not fly alone. The acceptance of flying without pilots is not yet available to passengers anyway. The people responsible at Lilium – as well as the other German aircraft pioneers – agree on this.
Conclusion: Technology that has not yet been approved meets infrastructure that does not exist and user acceptance that is not certain.
This is exactly where Peter Seidel feels at home. The former BMW manager has left his warm nest and became Chief Information Officer at Lilium on October 1.. With only five IT employees and a total of only 300 colleagues, the title CIO may be a bit exaggerated – but Lilium wants to grow. Still very euphoric, Seidel steers his first self-purchased BMW via the Oberpfaffenhofen airfield near Munich. The traffic light on the tarmac is green. No plane is landing at the moment. Actually, almost no plane ever lands here. Seidel crosses the airfield at 30 km/h and parks in front of the old Dornier building, which Lilium has almost completely occupied. “Take a look,” says the IT specialist: “The next two production halls are almost finished. And here in the first hall is our development. That’s where our bird parks.”
The hangar is still too big. There is only one prototype of the jet and a double garage would be sufficient for that. But at Lillium everything is geared towards growth. At some point it will not only be developed here but also produced in series. A second plane is already under construction, says Seidel. But you can’t see anything yet. In the company’s own museum, a few models of first works made of balsa wood are parked. Allegedly the jet should have taken off for a test flight in this fine foehn weather. But the hangar remains closed. There is a video of the maiden flight on 4 May 2019.
That has to be enough for now, see
Seidel presents the canteen. In the mornings, at noon and in the evenings the employees eat here for free. Muesli with soya, oat or organic milk is always available, low-fat, high-fat, just as diverse as the whole staff. A world map at the entrance shows where all employees come from. No continent lacks a flag, even countries like Chad are flagged. Seidel is particularly proud of the many flags in California: “The ones from Silicon Valley wouldn’t have to be here if it weren’t exciting here.”
Three tasks await the CIO, based on the three major areas of the company: development, production and “operation of the airline”. But waiting is the wrong word, says Seidel. The usual 100 days for newcomers to present a concept do not exist: “With the speed here, that’s more like ten at the most.” The reason: financing rounds A and B with 100 million euros have long been settled. C is getting much bigger, and almost certain, says Seidel. The five investors Tencent, Atomico, LGT, Obivious and Freigeist want to fly.
In development: Digital Twins from the very beginning
In order to leave a flying object – driven by 36 fans – in the air, the developers are testing quite a lot. Two high-performance clusters are currently calculating how the jet floats gently and does not rock. The clusters are already located in external data centers. But Seidel is still unhappy with the shadow IT that grew before his time. He’s still showing himself to be tough: “I don’t want to have a piece of hardware in my house here.”
The CIO doesn’t want to push boxes at Lilium, although “Digital Twins” are to be created in the development from the start – so the demand for computers is particularly high. Seidel prefers to speak of “Digital Shadow”, but means the same thing: Everything that is physically created needs a digital image. The analysts at Gartner constantly preach this approach to large companies – only they have to struggle with their legacy systems. At Lilium, Seidel sees a great opportunity to design the IT architecture for the future right from the start. “For example, we can implement a concept like the Digital Twin end to end, or we can ask ourselves which master data the ERP or PLM will be the leading system for.
In Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), market leader SAP would be the standard solution – at any rate, most large companies choose this path. Seidel, on the other hand, can still decide independently on a target architecture. Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) as the dominant system also has its charm for him. The developers are already busy using Siemens Teamcenter. “Although Siemens is bulky in its handling, it’s best for a closed loop,” says Seidel.
In production: Finding the right MES
Here the topic of IT architecture is becoming really virulent: “Production in line or single item – at the moment we can still imagine both,” says Seidel. This will of course have an impact on IT. Which Manufacturing Executing System (MES) is best for an aircraft manufacturer that the world has never seen before? “Around a hundred MES providers are on the longlist,” says Seidel: “There will probably be one of them. “A pilot project with Siemens is currently underway. “Teamcenter will remain as a PLM,” Seidel already reveals. But how much weight the solution will have depends on a second major architectural decision.
The CIO has to decide acutely whether and how much SAP to purchase. Here, too: Of course, setting up SAP for a total of 300 employees is an exaggeration. But Lilium wants to grow. So, for the future, regardless of the unanswered question, we will buy how much and how well SAP will reach into production with its “Leonardo” solution. And at what conditions. It is well known that the Walldorf-based company will not become cheaper as soon as a customer slips into dependency. After all, Seidel is already certain: “In-house development is no option in this area”.
In the airline: Apps will be developed in London
Lilium is not yet one. But what is certain for the startup is that the jet will not be built in order to sell it to rich owners. At Lilium, private pilots are considered to be outdated models. Shareconomy is the buzzword. The vision is as follows: The passenger can pull a seat on the plane over an app if required. Four passengers then meet for a maximum of one hour to cover a maximum of 300 kilometres at group take-off and landing sites. The fun shouldn’t cost much more than a taxi -this is the plan.
For IT, this means first and foremost that an app must be created that immediately makes the end customer want more. The nucleus for app development is already in place. In London, Lilium gathered the first developers around to create a hip, contemporary tool. Seidel and the company’s IT department are initially just as uninvolved in this as they are in the IT department on the plane. Lilium considers the interface to the customer to be just as important as the autonomous flight systems. Nobody – no CIO and certainly no CDO – should take part in this. The CIO still has two major tasks ahead of him.
Networking and security will be the most time-consuming jobs for Seidel in the future. In order to fully utilize the aircraft, they must be constantly connected to the (IT) network – no matter where they are moving. And the biggest task for the future: No hacker should get caught in the control systems of autonomous aircraft. Google may survive images of a jeep steered autonomously into the ditch. For Lilium they would be the end of the company.
Why does Seidel do all this to himself?
“I still have about 15 years of work ahead of me,” says the CIO. At BMW, it was reasonably foreseeable what would have come his way. Most recently, Seidel was responsible for plant IT there. He still praises his old employer to the skies, but doesn’t want to miss the freedom in a startup. “At BMW we also tried to create something like ‘Startup-Islands’,” says Seidel: “But in the end it was still a concern.