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Avionics Software Outsourcing Deal Draws Fire

The deal is raising flags among offshoring opponents, who question whether mission-critical software should be written by international teams.

Washington -- An alliance between a U.S. embedded-software services company and an Indian-based partner to outsource avionics software development is raising flags among offshoring opponents, who question whether mission-critical software should be written by international teams.

Avista Inc. (Platteville, Wis.) and Silver Software (Malmesbury, England) last week announced an alliance they said would allow aircraft makers and avionics companies to shift software development offshore while retaining U.S.-based project management.

The partnership will "provide significant cost benefits" to aircraft makers, said Avista president James Schneller. The larger the project, the greater the savings, he added.

Norm Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California at Davis and a leading U.S. opponent of offshoring, said that overseas development of avionics software is a bad idea. He also questioned whether the alliance between Avista and Silver Software, which has a software development facility in Bengaluru, India, would actually result in cost savings. While aircraft makers and avionics contractors might benefit, Matloff said, "the software costs amount to a minuscule portion of the average airline ticket."

Avista's Schneller responded that outsourcing has long been used in the aviation industry. "For decades, large aircraft manufacturers have worked with outside contractors for various parts, software and systems--to utilize specialized expertise and minimize overhead," he said. "Recently, though, some aircraft manufacturers have actually started mandating that a percentage of software work be done offshore to minimize costs."

It was this industry trend that prompted Avista to form its alliance with Silver Software, Schneller said.

Avionics software development differs from embedded software in that it must comply with government-mandated safety specifications (DO-178B certification). The partners said this has made it difficult for aircraft makers and avionics contractors to manage offshore avionics software development.

"While offshore development offers considerable cost savings, there are hidden risks that can be difficult to manage and program challenges that impact product delivery time lines," Schneller said.

Founded in 1987, Avista claims to have taken on more than 750 projects that meet DO-178B requirements. In most cases, 20 to 30 percent of a project development team is based in the United States and the other 70 to 80 percent offshore, Schneller said.

Avista and Silver Software said their alliance aims to improve project management for development teams working in different time zones while monitoring quality and compliance with U.S. safety specs, documenting the avionics software development process and improving communications between U.S. managers and Indian-based developers.

Silver Software specializes in avionics domain expertise and has achieved a Level 5 rating for offshore development capabilities from the U.S. Software Engineering Institute's Capability Maturity Model Integration framework, a widely used process improvement approach.

Matloff of UC Davis said it may not be feasible to have software developers in India and managers in the United States. He cited recent moves by companies like Cisco Systems Inc., which said it would move senior managers to India "to be right where the software is being developed."

Avista currently works with leading aircraft makers like Boeing and key avionics suppliers such as Rockwell Collins. It is also working with some Airbus suppliers.

With the number of lines of embedded software code skyrocketing for new aircraft like Boeing's 330-passenger 787 Dreamliner, Schneller said avionics software is designed not only to increase a plane's functionality but also to reduce weight. For example, Boeing has specified wireless in-flight entertainment systems to reduce wiring costs and aircraft weight.

Weight savings from these avionics advances along with composite materials and more fuel-efficient engines should translate into lower aviation fuel costs for Boeing customers.

Rockwell-Collins and Honeywell are providing most of the flight control, guidance and other avionics for Boeing's 787.