Trailblazers of the Future
Sarah Varley speaks to Libby Vallance-Bull about her role as Head of Air Labs at BAE Systems Warton
Libby Vallance-Bull recently moved from a central London lifestyle to Chipping to take on a brand new, very forward-looking, technology-focused role at BAE Systems’ Warton site. After 20 years working in the oil industry, Libby has come to BAE to explore and exploit cutting-edge, disruptive technology and unconventional collaborations.
“In the oil industry, I saw a massive digital transformation and I knew I could take what I had learnt and transpose it into BAE. From being a geophysicist I was involved in the development and use of cutting-edge technologies to enhance productivity in response to the economic downturn in oil prices. As BAE Systems responds to the challenges set out in the UK Government’s Future Combat Air Strategy, there appears to be a similar set of principles, which could transform the way BAE work now and into the longer term,” explains Libby.
As Head of Air Labs, Libby is overseeing a broad portfolio of digitally enabled technologies to drive innovative and novel thinking. “Air Labs is a very new concept, forming a hub for the latest technologies and the transformation BAE is undergoing,” Libby says. “Where once we were seen as a purely engineering company, we are now very much a forward-leaning tech company and so Air Labs is the place to nurture the newest ideas and most cutting-edge technologies.
“It is a very exciting place to work as we are creating the perfect environment for individuals to come and be more creative, really propel their ideas forward and be the trailblazers of the future.”
Air Labs features state-of-the-art labs and classrooms for utilising the latest emerging technologies as well as several cockpit simulators that allow engineers and aircrew to experiment with different design options to constantly evolve and enhance the performance of the aircrafts. Air Labs is a key part of BAE Systems’ work as part of Team Tempest, tasked with developing a next generation stealth fighter jet together with Ministry of Defence personnel from the Royal Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Defence Equipment & Support and other industry partners including Leonardo, MBDA and Rolls-Royce.
As Libby explains: “The challenge for Team Tempest is even greater because we have been asked to develop Tempest in half the time and significantly cheaper than the cost of previous combat aircraft. This means we need to leverage the very best people, processes and technologies, wherever they are found in the global supply chain – and it is a big part of my job at Air Labs to find them.
“In a typical week I might be meeting with global software corporations, commercial gaming companies or Williams Grand Prix Engineering. All companies at the leading edge of technologies that could have exciting applications in our industry. It’s all about building partnerships with companies both large and small that are completely different from us but complementary – they might have novel manufacturing processes or software capabilities that could be applied in future combat air development,” says Libby.
“My role is to put the latest technologies in front of our amazing engineers and scientists and see what they can do with them. This makes Air Labs a very vibrant place to work. Our teams are working on areas such as augmented human performance, automation, cyber technologies data analytics, space and hypersonics. There are so many exciting opportunities to be part of all these areas.
“We recognise that the workforce of the future requires a whole new and diverse skill set and a new way of working together,” Libby says. “As part of a wider business strategy we are exploring how to build the capability and skills required to support the development and evolution of a next generation fighter jet.”
BAE Systems, Warton is also home to the Factory of the Future, where operators work in harmony with robotics (described as cobotics). This first-of-its-kind factory provides a glimpse at how aircraft could be produced in the future, more affordably and with a greater degree of adaptability. Libby explains the importance of data gathering and data analytics to drive the processes within the factory.
“We find ourselves in an increasingly complex environment driven by disruptive technologies. Information is key to our customers and so we want to create a data-rich environment right across the business, from the way products are designed, to the way they are built and supported throughout their lifecycle,” Libby tells me.
“My vision for Air Labs is to be a positive disruptive influence, with the end game of creating better business outcomes for our customers, whilst creating a benchmark for the right culture of a digitally literate, highly productive and empowered workforce.”
On a personal level, Libby is enjoying the opportunities her move has provided to explore new territories on her beloved motorbikes, a Triumph Street Cup and a vintage Honda CX500.
“Having come from a really busy part of London, Greenwich, I am absolutely loving my rural commute to work. It is one of the reasons I chose a beautiful, remote farm building conversion near Chipping as my new home. The journey to work is stunning and starts my day on the right note. I also often stop off at the gym at Ribby Hall on the way to or from work. Exercise and running are really important to me in creating the correct work life balance. My new location means I have fantastic running trails over Bleasdale on my doorstep. I have discovered a series of trails over the moors, none of which are easy, but you are always rewarded with magnificent views and the run back down again! I have a brother over in Huddersfield who I do ultra-running with and we have managed to get more of this in since I left London, now I’m surrounded by the perfect training ground,” Libby enthuses.
“Until now I have been having to split my time with London a lot so I’m looking forward to exploring more of the Ribble Valley in my free time. It really is the most beautiful place to live, completely quashing any of my friends’ misconceptions that it might be ‘grim up North’! Longridge is my nearest town and it is full of lovely little shops – one of my best discoveries has been the Little Town Dairy just outside Longridge where everything is homemade and the breakfasts are amazing! The first chance I had to get out on my motorbike with a friend, we spent 12 hours riding around the area and we never once ran out of beautiful countryside to explore!”