In 1997 in the Netherlands, five computer programmers began working on a new scheduling application for an aluminium hot mill operator. Today, that company is an industry leader in supply chain planning and optimisation, with approximately 12,000 users in over 80 countries using their software on a daily basis.
We speak to chief operations officer, Arjen Heeres, and business unit director, Marcel Dreef, to gain a better understanding of the work they are doing with airports, airlines and air traffic control, and to find out why they list disruption avoidance and passenger experience as two future key areas of focus.
Margot Knight: When and why did Quintiq enter the aviation industry?
Arjen Heeres: Quintiq as a company provides planning and optimisation software, which can be applied across different industries. We focus particularly on the industries where we can make a difference and really add value. At times we enter into a new industry because there is a real need that cannot be addressed by other technology companies that are active in that protocol.
About nine, ten years ago, KLM Catering Services were looking for a solution that would integrate all their operations. They have different operations, like preparing meals and storing them in a cold area, then distributing the meals to the aircraft, loading etc. They were looking for a solution that [enabled them to] to plan all those operations.
We didn't have any experience at that time in the aviation industry nor in the catering industry... We were in contact, we felt that this was exactly the kind of planning challenge that we could support, so we went through a POC - a proof of concept. So we built a small demo system to demonstrate that we were able to support the full process. That was the first time we really started to implement something at an airport.
MK: What does Quintiq offer the industry, and how does it benefit?
AH: Basically what we do is we plan and optimise operations. And planning operations means that we will make sure that if you look at the goals of a company - like an airline or an airport - then we try to use the resources that they have in the best possible way to improve the overall goals.
Using our solutions airport planners can look months or even years ahead [and ask]; how many staff do we need? What shifts do we need them to work? Who can do which tasks? Do we have enough vehicles and other equipment available, and the right, qualified staff to operate them? On a more operational level, from a few weeks to a few days before execution, our solutions help determine how to best handle sick leave or other ad hoc changes in the schedule in a cost effective way with minimum impact on the operation.
And on the day of operation we support our customers with what we call disruption management - we have to have a real-time closer view and look at what's happening all over the airport ... There's a so-called ripple effect of many different consequences and what the application does is constantly calculating this ripple effect, thousands of things happening at the same time, continuously, all of the day ... and then alarming where consequences are so serious that you need to act.
MK: Quintiq recently began working with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Can you please give me some details about the project?
Marcel Dreef: The examples that Arjen just gave in the airport, ranging from planning a few months out to handling disruptions on the day of execution - KLM, we support with long-term pilot planning. They are looking three to five years ahead at where they need to recruit a new pilot or train their current staff to become qualified for a different seat.
Many airlines are concerned about the huge number of staff they need to recruit over the coming years, but also to actually re-train their own people. For example, Boeing introduces a new aircraft type and the current pilot base is not qualified to fly that new aircraft type, and they need to be trained to do that. For some, the training is relatively short because they fly a similar type of aircraft, and for some it is longer because they have less experience in similar aircraft types. To do that properly, KLM really needs to look years ahead to be ready for changes in aircraft type and, for example, people retiring etc, and make sure that they have sufficient staff.
MK: How will the acquisition of Quintiq by Dassault Systèmes earlier this year affect business operations?
AH: We believe that, specifically for airports and maybe through a lesser extent also for airlines, we are at a real advantage, because Dassault Systèmes is very much focused on what they call '3D experience'... We still have to do some integration work, but over the coming years we will take the elements that are of value for airports, which are currently available within Dassault Systèmes, and combine that in what we call industry solutions for airports. We were only taken over a few months ago, so we don't know exactly what it will lead to yet, but where a 3D view of what's happening at the airport helps in making the right decisions, integration of planning and 3D modelling will be possible.
What we do know is that we belong to a profitable, financially stable group, which is to our advantage. And some of the technologies, not the core technology but the surrounding technologies - we can use existing breakthroughs from Dassault Systèmes, and integrate these with Quintiq's operations planning and optimisation platform.
MK: How do you see airport technology changing in the future? What services will be needed or become more important?
AH: The main trends in the airport industry are things like self-service ... to avoid those long queues, like in baggage handling and immigration. It's happening right now. Many airports are investing in the connected airport - people connected to the airport by mobile interaction - so that they are constantly informed about what's happening. Big data may also play a role. Just one example is automatic crowd counting: if you can better predict where there will be queues, you can also come up with suitable solutions to avoid excess queuing. In general, what you will see happening is that IT will become more important. Disruption avoidance will become more important and passenger experience will also become more important. Planning and optimisation will play a key role in this.
MD: Airlines, airports, but also ground handlers, air traffic control organisations, the catering companies - they are looking to work more closely together. They are sharing more information. But at the moment, every now and then, they struggle to make the most out of that. They do have a lot of data available and are looking into ways to make the best possible decision. This entire passenger experience depends ultimately on not only what the airport operator decides but also on how that links to the plans of the airlines, timelines of service providers and the decisions that are made in the air traffic control tower. So bringing these stakeholders together is another trend that we see in the industry.
MK: What does Quintiq have in the pipeline, considering what the future may hold?
AH: We now have four areas that we focus on: airports, and more or less connected to that are, ANSPs (the air traffic control orientations), airlines and service providers. ANSPs, like FAA [Federal Aviation Administration in the US], and DFS in Germany - these already, on a large scale, use our software ... The solution that we offer there is planning of air traffic controllers, so there we will continue to solidify our position.
Further plans we have now included more focus on airports, because we now have a number of airports live and planning their operations with Quintiq. Together with them we have seen the value our solutions bring, so we will continue to target this market and make sure that we help to make airports more efficient, and to help their customers have a better passenger experience.