...a Quiet Revolution
This product forever changed how airplane passengers view their cabin space and how they are able to control natural light.
. . . Continued from main page
Feature Article - AEROSPACE TECHNOLOGIES GROUP - March, 2023 Issue
JCF: I understand, So, let's get back to how the AerBlade fits into this scenario and why it’s so meaningful to those carriers and their customers.
MC: Sure, so the AerBlade first and foremost is an electric shade for passenger’s convenience – BUT it gives the flight attendant the ability to lower all the shades and darken the cabin via a master control. This eliminates any situation where the attendant would have to come to your seat and either ask you to lower your shade, or worse yet, have to lean across you while your sleeping, to do it for you. Now this I know is a common feature on widebody aircraft but not on single isle aircraft, regardless of class. So it’s a significant upgrade in flight experience and efficiency for the crew.
AerBlade was really conceived pre COVID but when COVID came along, suddenly, the cleanliness / touchless aspects started to enter and, although quite by accident, it lent the new product even more benefit.
JCF: You mean by simply having less fingers touching surfaces etc?”
MC: That's correct. With the AerBlade you don't have to grab a handle or touch the window shade at all. And there are also no nooks and crannies where germs can collect because we have a completely smooth clear lens in front that keeps the moving shade that goes up and down isolated from the passenger. So, between cycles, maintenance crews can just come along with some Windex and wipe down the surface easily. As for passenger operation of the shade, that is now accomplished with a button either on the front of the window shade or at your seat.
JCF: Ok, but what about Business Class vs. Economy? I mean lay-flats suites obviously span more widow wall. How does that work?”
MC: So with a single-aisle aircraft with a lie-flat suite, many of the window locations are inaccessible when the seat is in the upright position, you'd have to recline the seat to a bed before you could get to the actual window shade and actually lower it - because it's behind you like over the back of your head. So with an electrically controlled shade, you can actually raise and lower the shade without having to climb over the back of your seat or reach behind you. On a typical single aisle aircraft, because of the pitch of the seats, you could encounter as many as one out of every three window locations in the front of the aircraft as an inaccessible shade location to the passenger. So to now have a way for the crew (and the passenger) to manage this, is quite a big thing.”
AerBlade's inner blade can actually be digitally printed with anything the customer wants, the pattern of a fabric, their branding, or a thematic decoration.
ACA's ground unit at work in a Gulfstream cabin
JCF: OK and is there something about the name AerBlade? I mean is there an inference there?
MC: There is yes. So, those of us in the industry have long referred to the little plastic blind that you pull up and down as a blade shade, because it's a solid piece of plastic. So, we called it Aerblade because it is a neutral-space blade but also an electronically controlled shade that moves up and down.”
JCF: Ok, so it's not an accordion shade at all?
MC: That's correct.
JCF: And is it translucent or a completely opaque blade?
MC: It can be both but at minimum always there is a black out shade. There are two blades, first a translucent blade and then a second opaque (blackout) shade. And another great feature to AerBlade is that the inner blade can actually be digitally printed with anything the customer wants, the pattern of a fabric, their branding, a thematic decoration. The translucent could be a tinted shade which filters the light but allows the passenger to still see outside.
JCF: Ok, so it’s not a pleated shade at all then, correct?
MC: That’s right. Both blades are completely smooth surfaces. So the passenger has the option to lower that translucent blade and block the harsh sunlight but still see outside – or of course the opaque option which will provide total blackout.”
JCF: I see. Is there an option for lighting within the shade or at its perimeter.”
MC: No, we do not offer a lighting feature in the AerBlade. We have tested lighting features in our products a few times and they were just not widely accepted in the marketplace. So, we feel we have hit the right balance of options for this product as well as an attractive price point that makes it very affordable.”
JCF: What is your current rollout for the AerBlade?
MC: Well in a technical sense, it’s already happened. We first disclosed aerBlade™ to the public at AIX 2022 and then also had it at Farnborough last summer. But as far as widespread public introduction, that will occur with this article and many other outlets. But I should mention, we are already under contract with a major premium carrier to equip a portion of their fleet with AerBlade and the important thing is this customer they say the opportunity to place it at every seat. AerBlade will be throughout the aircraft, that is to say not only in the front of the aircraft, but economy as well. As far as when it will actually enter the passenger experience, that will be in 2024.
JCF: Excellent, can you now tell our readers how new products come to be at ATG, where the ideas come from, in other words is it customer driven or are they conceived and developed internally etc?”
MC: Sure, let me start at the end and work backwards for a second. So, I am personally a market in search of a product guy. That's sort of always been my business strategy - but that doesn't mean the customer always articulates what they need exactly either. But when you're out in the market and you talk to customers you'll inevitably get ideas for what might be a need , what they might like to see etc. Now you have rather than a product in search of a market , market in search of a product, but until we develop something nothing may have been historically available.
I often use the example of the PDA. Until Steve Jobs came along, no one ever knew they needed a PDA. He created the idea and then went out looking for his market. His notion was, well, no one recognizes the need, but once it seeps into the marketplace, people will wonder how they ever got along without it. But if you recall, Apple’s first PDA, the Newton was a flop. Jobswas ultimately right of course, but he was ahead of his time and ahead of the market. And honestly, that’s usually the case for developing products and then searching for a market.
In our case, we develop something that solves a problem…things that are driven by need. We have customers that use our products, and they can be very articulate about what it is they like or dislike and you have others that tell you what their problems are, then you have to figure out how you can solve them. But in both cases, we are driven by need…a hole to fill.
This is really the challenge that an entrepreneurial company has as it matures over its life. But in my view, it’s better to be in a competitive fight over an existing market share with plenty of demand, than to create a completely new product and then gamble big money and effort on its success or failure.
JCF: Ok so here’s my big question. For quite a while now, we have had EDW (electronically dimmable windows), right? So why a shade or a blade at all?”
MC: Good question and there’s a good answer.” Because we don't think EDW is a good product for the application. It doesn't work well, or perhaps I should say, it doesn’t work well enough. As remarkable as it is from a technology standpoint, EDW has several drawbacks. And in fact, aerBlade ™ was largely designed to eliminate all the negatives of the EDW. Let’s first start with the two types of EDWs. There's a positive EDW and a negative one. A positive EDW darkens when you apply energy to it and when you remove power it goes clear. A negative EDW is exactly the opposite. When you apply power to a negative EDW, it goes clear and then darkens as the power is taken away. OK so the negative EDW has the drawback that if the aircraft loses power all the windows go black and, as you might imagine, this is not good. There are some ways to overcome that like tying it into the emergency lighting system or something like that but at the end of the day if you lose electrical power then you've got to add extra batteries which means additional weight and everything else - so there's a lot of negatives.
Quality control inspections at each and every stage
And with the positive EDW, there's another inherent characteristic that’s not good. When you turn the EDW completely dark, in other words a blackout condition, like when you’re trying to sleep, the nature of the technology is such that you cannot go 100% dark. You always will end up with a pinhole, like the north star, sort of in the center somewhere. It's a function of the technology itself and the best analogy I can draw is with glass blowing. You can never completely get rid of the little blow point and with EDW it’s the same. You can never put enough energy into the glass to make the particles all dark and tight enough to eliminate the pinhole. And while that may be acceptable withing a huge panel of EDW glass, in the small space of an aircraft window, it’s a glaring defect.
JCF: OK that makes sense. Are there other drawbacks to EDW?
MC: Yes, the other negative that you have with EDW is that when it goes dark, it's a mirror. So, if you're sitting next to a series of mirrors, you can read the passenger’s laptop screen that's four seats in front of you because it reflects off the window. And if you think about it, it’s logical because mirrors are made by adding a dark backing to a piece of glass.
JCF: I see, so an enclosed shade is still the best option and the current state of the art?
MC: That’s correct. I mean I know a negative space blind is not a new concept but there has nevertheless been many remarkable improvements throughout its evolution, that now to make the ideal aesthetic solution, but also ideal from a functional and maintenance perspective. With dual blades working in tandem, you can create any combination from full clear to full blackout. And it’s all controlled remotely without ever needing to touch the panel itself. And once again, the cosmetic aspect so it blends into the cabin décor where the carrier has the option of digitally printing their branding or other designs onto that blade, which will never be touched or exposed to the wear and tear.
JCF: I know there's a lot of companies around the world that manufacturers window shades, but how would you describe your position in the marketplace? I mean I know that you're likely inclined to say well, we're the best - and maybe you are, but from a true global industry perspective, would you say that you're one of the market leaders out there - that your products legitimately set the current standard?
MC: Well, I need to tread lightly here of course because we are humble. But at this juncture, we are the standard bearer in the marketplace, yes. That characterization comes from our customers and not ourselves. Without taking anything away from EDW, which we have intentionally opted not to utilize for all the reasons I described, our products and particularly the AerBlade, represent the current state of the art. And so that my comment is not seen as reaching or unfounded, I need only point to our long list of OEMs that use our products as standard line fits. We’re a tier-one supplier to Boeing. We're Tier 1 to Airbus and we supply Gulfstream Bombardier, Cessna, Falcon, Honda and Cessna. Companies like these make it their business to scour the industry for the best and most advanced technologies before making decisions to integrate a vendor. That I think speaks the loudest and we’re proud of that list of customers.
JCF: Lastly, you had mentioned in a prior conversation that you are substantial in size these days but still small enough to be hands on. What did you mean by that?
MC: Well, I simply mean that we now have the workforce and company scales and to maintain our footprint and the R&D to keep ourselves well out on the edge with new product development. But at the same time, we have the sophistication of a larger company, we still have the feel of a small company. For example, I can walk around the factory and identify every single one of the 150 people in the building. I can stop and have a conversation with them, get their input or exchange ideas. We have never lost the family culture. I host a luncheon monthly with small groups of employees, so they provide their unfiltered input to management. And that not only feels good…but it’s good for business because our people drive the business, whether it is our continuous improvement programs or fresh ideas to improve the product. Those lunches are the highlight for me each month.
My last question to Mr. Ceste was whether or not they manufactured any products other than aircraft window shades. He was quick to say, no. “There are plenty of holes to fill out there” he says, referring to the holes that OEMs cut for windows. “So, I think we’ll stay with what we know, the saying goes Stick to the Knitting
I again want to thank Mr. Mario Ceste and also Ms. Tina Gricius (Director, Customer Solutions and Interior Design) for arranging and affording us their time in conducting this Q&A.
For more information, visit: atgshades.com