Boeing won a multi-billion dollar (that’s a ‘B’) contract from the US Air Force today. The contract requires that Boeing develop and deliver a new air-refueling tanker, replacing the fifty-year-old KC-135. The significance of this award is staggering, but probably not for the reasons you may be thinking. Sure there will be thousands of jobs created across the United States and there are sure to be new technologies developed as a by-product. Large development projects such as this new award are becoming extinct and in the process, innovation is threatened.
Development programs differ from other maintenance or sustainable programs in that there is always something new to identify and design. Development programs imply that the product of that program will live on for a long time. It’s very satisfying to know that a lot of what I’ve touched still operates and contributes to the companies’ bottom line to this day. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of several development projects and I know that my own ambition to find a better way, develop a new process and re-use or re-engineer an existing technology is higher during these projects.
My first major engineering assignment was at a grass roots chemical plant built in North Carolina. The term ‘grass roots’ is used to describe the construction of a facility from below the ground up. Although the technology for producing the product existed in an older plant in Louisiana, designing and constructing the new plant to produce more for less required new methodologies and processes. As a construction engineer, my responsibilities included reading and understanding the drawings for the structure, piping and electrical systems to assist the construction contractor. Many times I worked with the construction trades to solve an issue like the time a piping line to be installed per the drawings, ran right into the middle of an I-beam. I experienced a freedom to work real time issues with few boundaries. Cost, schedule and quality figured in, but the opportunities for originality abounded. I soon had an insatiable appetite for working with issues that stretched my engineering education and made me want to learn all I could.
I’ve been a project engineer for a new plant that produced silicon wafers, which were sold to companies like Intel and Motorola for making computer chips. Technology was constantly changing and our plant had to keep up to the market demand for cleaner, higher quality wafers. I again experienced freedom to innovate by incorporating these new technologies into manufacturing-ready processes and equipment. I loved my job.
In the aerospace industry, I worked to develop hardware requirements for the International Space Station. What a thrill to be part of something that now floats over Earth to this day. Imaginations were encouraged and thinking about life on the ISS in zero gravity forced me to change my point of view on everything I had designed to that point in time.
I’ve been part of two Air Force bomber programs that were awarded development contracts to replace aging equipment with the latest and greatest. Opportunities for innovation abounded. How do you change the display of information and crew interactions from a system that is thirty to fifty years old into a new year 2000 model? Colors and graphics on glass displays were unheard of thirty years ago. Higher processing speeds provided new prospects for original designs.
Most recently I worked on an air-refueling tanker program for international customers. Some of these same principles will be used for the new contract, upgraded for even more recent technologies. This program changed the way aircraft are refueled and it brought a bounty of complex issues that were resolved by STEMs, mechanics and technicians working together to develop innovative solutions. I worked with some of the best minds in the company and through the freedom the program offered, new designs and ideas exploded. To nurse these ideas into implementation, test the concepts and watch them take flight created a satisfaction and gratification for my chosen field.
I consider myself lucky for being able to experience these programs. Gone are the days of large chemical plant installations. Soon to be gone are the days of developing new fleets of military aircraft. Money and profits are huge concerns for companies and governments and they are all learning to maintain what they have at the lowest cost possible. Maintain. It can be the kiss of death for innovation. New ideas have a price tag and the desire to keep costs down competes with the freedom needed to innovate.
Look hard enough and there are some gains to be made within a sustaining effort. It can make you want to try harder, but most of the time, you sink into the rut of ‘why bother’. It falls into the ‘too hard’ pile and the same old ways are easier.
It is great for Boeing and the United States that this air-refueling program will give the STEMs a chance to improve and invent technologies. Let’s hope that there will be other chances to change the world and open the doors to freedom to innovate. It’s what made US strong and what will keep US strong.