As we venture out among the aerospace industry, it helps to know the lingo.
Four years have elapsed since we last provided discerning readers with a helpful field guide to the major species inhabiting trade shows. Four years is a long time. Has anything changed? Have the major species evolved? Regressed? Have some gone extinct or suffered outright obsolescence? What are the replacements?
The quest for knowledge beckons us back to the field.
Curiosity about a changing world and an evolving industry propels us to don pith helmets and binoculars and return to the source. Post-graduate work commences now.
Today’s trade show showcases military and aerospace supply chains. Four years ago, we looked at electronics, broadly based, with commercial applications. Wares were hawked, and sales methods were scrutinized at well-known commercial and industrial events. Today we consider items that shoot, explode, report, eavesdrop, interfere (jam), transmit, receive, intercept, and encrypt or decrypt. To exact specifications. Objects sold here ascend, plummet, and follow ballistic trajectories on one-way missions, the warranty expiring on impact (no extension needed). They may settle into low earth or geosynchronous orbit. In many cases, they fulfill an application in which a protagonist initiates action at one end, and their antagonist resides at the receiving end of the transaction. The result is usually transformative for one party. That’s a diplomatic way of saying they have a limited lifespan. Some win, some lose.
Because our Way of Life must be preserved. It’s also good business.
Button down those collars and trim that hair to regulation length, soldier; we’re going in.
Immediately, the difference from four years ago is apparent: shirttails are firmly tucked in at this show. Hawaiian shirts proliferate among engineers at shows for “civilian” applications. Not here. The Big Lebowski does not thrive in Acronymland. This crowd is more circumspect. For a reason. Drawing attention to oneself is not in your best interest. Stick with the acronyms, follow the statement of work, and complete the mission. You will be audited.
Speaking of which: NASA, JPL, NRO, SBIR, NRO, NIST, ANSI, DTSC, AS9100, NADCAP, NSA, ITAR. Know the lingo or you won’t pass muster, mister.
This world knows a different business cycle. Defending our cherished values means eternal vigilance.
From which follows eternal cashflow.
If what you build is built correctly. In a world where there often is one customer, mistakes have existential effect, with no statute of limitations.
With that sobering background, which new or evolved species do our field surveys reveal?
The New Hire (Millenianus Niavae). Easily identified by youth and propensity to address others, irrespective of name, title, rank, social position, or educational pedigree with the salutation “hey.” Often dispatched by unseen superiors to shows like these for information-gathering purposes, without attribution. Frequently does not possess business card, the better to avoid intrusive salespersons. Rarely makes eye contact with anything or anybody, aside from smartphone screen. Unsubstantiated reports say this species subsists on a daily diet of avocado toast. Studies speculate only a small minority of this cohort will work for the same company their entire career. Good with apps. Does not carry cash. Often does not know what cash is. Known also to harbor delusions of entitlement (to what is not always clear).
Our future. Prudence and good business sense demand we subsume judgment (easily dispensed) for the greater good. Lord knows it’s a target-rich environment, inviting critical commentary as gravity to a black hole. The temptation to speak one’s mind (speaking truth to lack of power?) never ends. Easy. Recognize the talent. Those countless Little League participation awards were earned for a reason.
If we want to go to the moon again, or Mars and beyond, these young people will be writing the equations steering the trajectory of the vehicles to get us there.
Just check their math.
The 3D Printing Engineer (Tridimensionalis Additivae). Creates all manner of objects quickly, frequently one-off, to validate product designs quickly. Like circuit boards. Or hip joints. Or solid and liquid fuel rocket engines. Ideally suited for aerospace applications because of the unique, limited nature of each production run. The species existed in 2015, but it rose to prominence concurrently with the rise of commercial spaceflight engineering. Thinks in days and weeks, rather than months and years. Often observed in the wild as a hybrid, blended species, combining the attributes of the New Hire (described above) with the software knowledge necessary to create three-dimensional objects from materials as varied as plastic composites and metals such as titanium. Persistent rumors abound that representatives of this species are actively researching means of creating 3-D printed avocado toast.
Once championed as the universal prototype manufacturing solution, 3-D printing techniques, additive as well as subtractive, have hit their stride recently by focusing on mechanical engineering, medical, and aerospace products. Regarding the latter, 3-D-printed rocket nozzles, struts, engine nacelles and fairings, to name but a few among hundreds of applications, are now the norm. With NASA withdrawing to the background and apparently transforming itself from a spaceship builder to a new primary role as a certifying and regulatory agency, technologies like 3-D printing have become integral to the proving process.
As test engineers, we participate in this evolution by imaging 3-D-printed parts, whether in an inspection role (looking for flaws, voids, or other defects), or performing what is called nominal/actual comparisons, in which the finished object is scanned and rigorously compared to the original design data for dimensional faithfulness. We could tell you a lot more, but we’d have to ….
The Artificial Intelligence Engineer (Gnosis Pseudonomae). Big data person. Likes drones (the flying vehicle kind, not the earthbound, rulebound, eyeshade-wearing accountant kind). Responsible for pipelining massive amounts of data from aircraft and spacecraft systems, especially navigation systems and engines. Developer of machine vision systems and algorithms for identifying air traffic hazards, runway and taxiway incursions, and automating flight maneuvers previously controlled exclusively by human input. Risk assessment in action, data derived from artificial intelligence determines whether certain air missions are best conducted by humans or robots. Embodiment of evil in the minds of some futurists for allegedly spreading the belief that robots will take over the world.
The spawn of drones and data. Not that data delivery is new. It’s just bigger. As recent Apollo 11 retrospectives have shown, telemetry data monitoring spacecraft performance goes back to the 1960s. We just have more of it now, and in volumes inconceivable 50 years ago. Every aspect of vehicle performance is now recorded as a routine matter, and sometimes not so routine (plane crash forensics, for example). Drones seem now to proliferate in the same manner of development as 3-D printing was thought indiscriminately applicable 10 to 15 years ago. The winnowing of applications for drones has yet to begin (pizza delivery?). So, the field for engineers is wide open. As is the need for digital imaging activities to support hardware development and validation.
Yet another species:
The Biofuels Engineer (Alternativus Propulsionensis). Developer of chemistries and engine systems not exclusively dependent on fossil fuels. Invents fuels from agricultural feedstocks and synthetic sources. Also intimate with electric and hybrid-electric propulsion systems.
Fertile ground (pardon the expression) for chemical engineering and materials science graduates. Alternative aviation fuels represent less than 1% of total consumption today, per Aviation Week & Space Technology, but the field, and the demand, is growing. Could the day arise when America’s farmers depend on aerospace rather than China for their livelihood? One wonders.
Fuel and propulsion technology involve materials. CT scanning evaluates materials. Hence our involvement.
The last new sighting:
The Cubesat Engineer (Economicus Vehiculae). Designer of micro-miniature satellites for (mostly) scientific applications. Can be launched into Earth’s orbit in large groups, thereby distributing cost over many applications. Works with colleges, universities and aerospace startups to develop projects of particular academic or commercial interest, or whose inherent risk does not justify the expense of larger, more costly launch vehicles. The cubesat engineer often works for a college or university. Some of these schools actively exhibit at aerospace trade shows, touting their minisatellite expertise.
The Poor Man’s Sputnik, Cubesat clusters frequently occupy otherwise unused space on research rockets. The standard 1U Cubesat is 10 x 10 x 11.35cm (4 x 4 x 4.5") and weighs about 3lb. To date, nearly 1,000 cubesats have been sent into Earth’s orbit, exciting aeronautical engineering graduate students across the globe. The standard volume enables quick payload interchangeability. Cubesats are easily grouped together into 2U and 3U clusters for launch.
Most cubesats and their payloads eventually outlive their usefulness and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere upon reentry. The very few that manage to make it back to terra firma eventually find themselves in laboratories such as ours, where payloads are examined under x-ray and CT scanning for mechanical stress and suitability for relaunch. Thin college space budgets can be stretched even thinner, if lifecycle analysis is favorable.
Enough with the new. Lest you think the wild has changed completely, fear not, because one species is immortal:
The Sales Rep (Granularius Preposterii). Preternaturally optimistic. If not optimistic enough, switches careers to become more so. (“Weren’t you selling circuit boards the last time I saw you?”) Makes abundant use of buzzwords (granularity, reaching out, circling back, touching base, synching up) to divert attention from lack of technical know-how. Says business is always good, even when it isn’t. Has disturbing propensity to bend the truth to suit his or her interests. Has very short attention span.
This species is also abundant. It has yet to be replaced by a robot or sustained by biofuel. As to the artificiality of this species’ intelligence, reader, you must judge.
Let us also salute the Old Guys. The Old Guys never go away. We just get new ones, with new stories of analog computers and vacuum tubes. And now Saturn V rockets and short-sleeve white shirts and thin black ties. Trade shows for them are social events.
In parting, they also harvest our swag pens in bushels.
As if we didn’t notice.
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