There are two engineering disciplines which have, by many accounts, been most affected by our transition from a local to a global economy: computer science, and aerospace engineering. However, this transition had very different effects for both disciplines. In computer science, this transition has led to a revolution and almost unbound entrepreneurship creating the worldwide web and countless life-changing applications. In aerospace engineering, there is an almost scary entrenchment of the key players and the value of entrepreneurship is not broadly recognized.
All of a sudden, it struck me how pervasive and ubiquitous Aerospace Engineering really has become. I sent him an email along the following lines:
“I just checked into my plane that will bring me back from Switzerland to the US tomorrow. I did so, on a phone that found the airport based on a vicinity argument I used in Google Maps combined with GPS. Google Maps also provides space images of my entire neighborhood in Bern and I used these to find the cross-section for the taxi pickup I then arranged. I then called the US using a satellite connection in the Swiss mountains to make a taxi reservation at the other side of the trip.”
Ten years ago, I did not have a cell-phone with true international reach. I did not have any GPS receiver, and I never used any space imagery. But, interestingly enough, Aerospace Industry only gets very little credit for these advances. Furthermore, the commercialization of these applications has pretty much come from anywhere but aerospace engineering: Google, Telecom, etc. Many aerospace companies, especially those working in space, have instead retreated and work 60-70% only for one customer: the government.
That is pretty scary, for many reasons. First of all, aerospace will likely see a substantial drop in spending from Department of Defense, which will affect this entire industry. Second, government work means work with government bureaucrats, who, in many cases, will draw the last drop of entrepreneurial blood out of anybody. They are often failed innovators and bad engineers whose job security derives from being difficult and from causing tremendous ever-increasing stacks of paperwork. They work in antiquated structures with laws that have not kept up with time and technology. They are over-regulated, over-managed and many of them are under-motivated.
Tony has long talked about this and several other key challenges faced by this industry, and his most recent column on “Aerospace’s Perfect Storm” draws a worrisome picture. He points to two important weaknesses which have the potential to weaken and severely hamper the success of some of the proudest companies the US has seen. Among others, Tony identifies these weaknesses as,
“.. Corporate cultures which discourage rather than encourage risk-taking and innovation are pervasive throughout the US industry due in no small measure to the growing orientation around financial versus engineering managers”.
Tony then asks; “Could that have something to do with the fact that the industry is finding it difficult to attract and retain the best and brightest in the most critical engineering disciplines?”
Indeed, of all the top-engineers who I have seen enter Aerospace industry, this is the principal complaint and frustration. The companies don’t want innovators and change agents. They want people who stand in line and do what they are told. That has allowed a number of my former students to leave their aerospace workplace and look for more challenging and interesting places, such as SpaceX, Scaled Composites, and also new energy companies or biomedical engineering companies. That’s not necessarily bad for these students, but is a loss of aerospace industry.
At the University of Michigan, we want to be known for the education of innovators, entrepreneurs and risk-takers. And, we want our people to play a leading part of major transitions in industry, particularly in Aerospace Engineering. The University of Michigan Aerospace Engineering Department is the world’s first Department focused on this exciting discipline, and has been the place of education and training of some of the world’s best innovators and entrepreneurs.
But, I think, there is almost unprecedented opportunity to create new applications, new companies, and to enable new things that could not have been imagined in a world that was mostly local. The flat world is a world full of opportunity for Aerospace Entrepreneurs!