Working in a global, virtual design environment, future aerospace engineers will need broader-based skills - and a flair for communication

The aerospace engineer of the future will be multi-disciplinary, a good communicator and able to work in global, virtual product development teams. While the design tools are light years ahead, in some ways it is a move back towards aviation's origins.

"If you go back 50 years, engineering was done with a lot fewer people, all multi-disciplinary," says David Swain, president of Boeing Phantom Works. "As aircraft got more complex, people began to specialise. Now the power of the computer is taking the complexity out, allowing people once again to become more multi-disciplinary."

What is making this possible is the new digital design environment, which enables the product to be handled as three-dimensional computer models from initial conception to the cutting of metal. Design tools allow the engineer to conduct structural analysis, determine the cost and producibility of a part, and simulate fabrication and assembly with the click of a mouse.

The design environment makes it possible for engineers to work in teams that are geographically dispersed, "regionally and globally", Swain says. "The technology lets them work like they were next to each other, although they might be half the world apart."

Swain says the next step is to capture the specialists' knowledge and make it available to all engineers. Tools will provide the capability to click on a part and call up previous designs for reuse. "We will have to institutionalise a new way of thinking: that you don't design something new until you have to," he says. "This will focus the engineer on being innovative where needed."

Rather than constraining engineers to simply repeat what has been done before, Swain believes the new environment "adds new excitement, and a real context for innovation. If you innovate in your own domain, you sub-optimise the design. Now you can see the trade-offs in weight, cost and cycle across the design. This provides a real ability to innovate."

Eliminating risk

BAE Systems director of engineering Dave Gardner is "convinced" the new environment will move risk out of development and into upfront design. Both the product and the requirement can be examined more fully in a synthetic environment, he says.

As the requirement becomes more focused, a virtual model can be established and discussed with the customer.

The new design environment will also help tackle the lack of engineers, Gardner believes, allowing global, virtual product development teams to be established and the work to be performed wherever the engineers are based. This will even be possible for hardware testing, he says, with a rig in the UK being sent test instructions over the Internet by an engineer the other side of the world.

Gardner agrees that computer-aided design will develop to capture specialist knowledge which can then be "put in the bank". Capturing the expertise of individuals will ease the training of new employees, who traditionally gather engineering skills through the laborious process of sitting alongside an experienced worker.

At the same time, design reuse will increase, he says. For example, BAE makes commercial and military aircraft, armoured vehicles, ships and submarines, and all use inertial navigation systems. It should be possible to design a system once and allow others to pick from a range of standard modules and software, "almost like teleshopping", Gardner says.

The day of the generalist

Although the generalist is replacing the specialist, and design tools will be common across a company like BAE, engineering skills will still be domain based, Gardner believes. In other words, applicable to aircraft, ships or tanks. Those skills will be shaped by continuous training.

Through-life learning is crucial, says Gardner, because of the rate at which IT tools are developing. Companies must provide the correct tools, he says, noting that young engineers leaving university today are seeking employers with the most up-to-date tools, particularly in software design.

The importance of IT to aerospace is illustrated by Lockheed Martin vice-president, science and engineering, Dr Bill Ballhaus. He says the US giant is looking for graduates "who are good at IT and electrical engineering and love aerospace." The company sees its future in systems integration and believes its future engineers should have a solid grounding in IT "because that's where the action is".

He points out that any new aircraft is likely to fly for the next 30 to 100 years, but that hardware upgrades will come every five years or so and software updates every two years. The major recurring design activity, therefore, will be in avionics integration

Lockheed Martin is working with universities to shape courses that meet its needs, giving aerospace students early exposure to information technology and to working in interdisciplinary teams to solve systems engineering problems - such as how to boil an egg with solar power for under $100. By bringing together the aerospace and IT disciplines in universities "we are building bridges between departments that are currently stovepiped", Ballhaus says, noting: "A lot of people leave engineering because they get stovepiped."

BAE, meanwhile, has created university courses specifically aimed at training systems engineers. While head of engineering at BAE Warton, Gardner set up the systems engineering course at the UK's Loughborough University. Part of the curriculum forces the student to view the human body as a machine. This approach trains engineers to "attack the problem with a systems overview".

Engineers are not renowned for being the most outgoing of individuals, but the new collaborative product development environment in aerospace requires graduates that are flexible, open-minded and good communicators. This is the message from Boeing, the largest single corporate employer of aerospace specialists in the USA.

"They've got to understand that just because they come away with a sheepskin, their education has not stopped - it's just started," says Ron Bengelink, Boeing's director for international engineering programmes and a leading company representative on the University Relations Process Council.

Boeing needs a new type of engineer because it is a new type of company, he says. Driven by the widespread penetration of information technology, Boeing is becoming a highly integrated, broad-based organisation and requires broad-based skills.

"Classical skills are still needed," Bengelink says. "The game is still getting an aircraft that is competitive. You can't forget lift over drag just because you're working out how to build it more cheaply. But now we have to integrate the system more completely than we've been doing it in the past. Engineers have got to be able to understand how it all goes together - not just their little piece of it."

Armed with the latest integrated design tools, engineers will be required to understand how things go together, and what things cost, he says. "To be an engineer you will have to understand the economic aspect. You will also have to appreciate art. I know that sounds strange, but the students define engineering as the art of re-organising the forces and materials of nature for the good of society. Most people in school think this is all about maths and physics. They don't appreciate art, yet engineers don't talk for too long before pulling out a piece of paper and starting to scribble".

Graduate supplies

To ensure an adequate supply of such worldly graduates, Boeing is working with other companies, government agencies, engineering schools and universities to modify education programmes. Together they have started the Industry University Government Round Table For The Enhancement Of Engineering Education, which Bengelink describes as "a way for people from other companies, universities and government to talk about new approaches to education".

One of the approaches is to give more "hands-on" experience to students. "At one meeting some aviation pioneers talked about how, in the summer time when they were students, they had barnstormed old aircraft. That was all part of their education. It was a 'real' experience. But today you can't build an engine, you can't tune it. So the universities are trying to create some of that sort of thing again."

Other moves include bringing professors into factories to "teach them what is going on". Another plan is to force government research funding towards purer engineering programmes, rather than today's science-based engineering, which stemmed from a government-supported study showing that all key inventions of the Second World War were made by scientists rather than engineers. "The pendulum swung too far and needs to go back," says Bengelink.

At the same time, Boeing is creating a "one company" approach to its university relationships. "It is important for us to communicate properly with a group of schools that are important to us. We can't have relationships with every engineering school in the USA and some international schools," says Bengelink who adds that some partnerships extend beyond recruiting to include research and development

Both BAE and Lockheed Martin have similar initiatives to build closer links with educational institutions. BAE, for example, is encouraging certain universities to use the company's facilities, such as its windtunnels, to show students the world away from academia and to "get them to think of what industry needs", says Gardner.

Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, has funded a software learning centre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used by computer sciences, electrical engineering and aerospace students. The company also funds courses in systems integration at MIT and Stanford University which are taught by retired Lockheed Martin engineers.

Links can also be strengthened by sending employees back to school. BAE has created a Master of Science course for its engineers which consists of modules taken at three different universities. Lockheed Martin has an engineering leadership development programme under which selected entry-level employees earn a Master's degree solving interdisciplinary problems.

As BAE's Gardner makes clear, engineers can no longer complete a university degree and never do any further training.

Source: Flight International