Humans of RMIT: Andrew Muirhead

Andrew Muirhead, Head of PD Original Equipment Innovation Lufthansa Technik, RMIT Alumnus

Speaking from my experience as a former student of RMIT, what was a huge factor in getting me to where I am today is the balance of practical and theoretical learning that RMIT embeds into its approach to education. And keeping an emphasis on hands-on learning is what will help educational institutions make the most of the global opportunities post COVID-19.

Not only did we learn the core of subjects, but we learnt for example how to build things and work circuit boards; experiences that meant I wasn’t lagging behind the other interns I encountered in Germany who would do an apprenticeship first, learn the practical skills, and then go to university to learn the theory. This holistic approach to learning and the ‘bigger picture’ is what sets RMIT apart in my opinion.

I remember whilst studying Engineering and German at university my Professor suggesting that apply to do an internship in Germany – so I did.

I sent my applications off to Airbus and Lufthansa, who subsequently both rejected me.

Luckily, Lufthansa told me in their rejection letter that the reason I wasn’t accepted was because I didn’t have the right subjects. So, I went back to RMIT and adjusted my elective subjects, then wrote back to tell them.

Four months later I had a business class ticket to Hamburg in my mailbox and an invitation to join their internship program. As you can imagine, as a student studying full time with little spending money, I was speechless.

I spent nine months in their internship program, extending my degree by another semester so I could finish the program. Long story short, I came back to Melbourne to finish my degree and by 1992 when I was finished, I was ready to catch the first plane back to Germany to work again for Lufthansa because I loved it so much.

The problem was however, it was the end of the first Gulf War, so there was absolutely no work in aerospace. So I packed by bags and explored the world; ending up right back in Germany.

I applied (successfully) for a position at Andersen Consulting, now known as Accenture, worked there for three years and thought, I’m ready to go home again.

The plan was to come back to Australia, but as fate has it, a position came up in Engineering with Lufthansa, so I applied and the rest is history.

By 2001 I was getting frustrated installing equipment onto aircraft from various suppliers. I distinctly remember the turning point – it was around 3am and I had been trying to get one of the systems weh ad installed to work – this was probably the fifth aircraft in a row we had been working on with faulty equipment from the same company. I turned to my colleague and said, “I think we could build better systems than this”, and he said, „well why don’t we?“

I sketched out a business plan to start a development and manufacturing business, handed it to my boss, he handed it to the CEO and before I knew it, I was offered the opportunity to create a startup business within the company with some seed funding. The option was to then produce profitable results in ordert o gain further funding or consider a new line of employment. I was up for the challenge.

So we recruited eight staff and set to work on creating “Original Equipment Innovation” at Lufthansa Technik. Being 2002, the idea of innovation and entrepreneurship was almost like a foreign language; no one was really doing it or knew about the magnitude of it.

Fast forward to today and we’ve grown from eight people to one of Lufthansa Technik’s eight Product Divisions with revenues well over AUD 100 million. We have gone on to institutionalise innovation and business creation with a company wide “Shark Tank” assessing new business ideas and sponsoring them.

But, as is everyone, we are also feeling the severe economical impact of COVID-19; unfortunately we’ve had to put our Shark Tank on hold until the dust settles. And I cannot wait to get back into pushing the cause of innovation and new business creation..

For businesses today, the concept of new ideas and innovation is absolutely fundamental to ensure their survival, now more than ever.

Innovation these days is so much more than about new ways to make more money, it’s about innovating to survive.

And there are some organisations that are doing this brilliantly.

I’m not following the Australian market as closely, but there is one company that stands out immediately, IDEO. The founder literally created design thinking. They are a company who really understands innovation to the core.

But innovation is happening everywhere nowadays. From companies like 3M or the German Company Kärcher who would hire Airbnb houses and use them to identify ways to clean more efficiently and then invent the products to do just that.

The world is going to be a very different place when this crisis is over. It’s already changed so much, and so I think businesses need to think about what’s happening with their current customers, what changes are happening in society, the market and the competitive landscape and proceed to design new products and services to win new customers and maintain existing ones. In situations like this, the magic of innovation happens.

Once you start focussing on the true needs of your customers, you are better able to identify their key pains and challenges and you can then explore if the products and services you offer are the right fit or if there are new opportunities to exploit.

On aviation, more specifically, being so central to globalisation, and with so many borders now closed,  there are big changes to come. And while there will undoubtedly be less business travel, I think the value of face-to-face connection will remain. Building trust online does not compare to physical, face-to-face interaction. In this same way, peoples‘ craving to continue to explore and travel will remain, if not increase. And while the types of planes will change – aircraft like the A380 and 747 will likely be replaced by more economical twin engine aircraft – our world will become more sustainable. We will have to innovate and evolve to meet the new demands of our customers and the world we live in.

Environmental sustainability will become a key topic of discussion, with an expectation on organisations to cut their carbon footprint. That pressure was there before the pandemic, but I personally think it’s going to be even bigger in the aftermath of the crisis as well.

For educational institutions to continue to thrive and be relevant, I think there needs to be a greater emphasis on the elements that surround the core learning topics, skills that are crucial in the workplace and life after university; understanding the law, management and social skills and particularly of relevance now, digital skill sets.

Digital is just going to become more and more part of our lives, no matter what you are studying. And just as it encourages its students to do so, RMIT needs to back itself more and put itself out there and more on the map – having said that, I only just discovered recently that there was a campus in Barcelona – connecting to more corners of the globe.

If I can take something out of the events of 2020; it is that the time in a state of lockdown has made me appreciate all the little things that I take for granted so much more. Positively it has been great to take time to slow down and enjoy life and plan for the next fun challenges ahead.