Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg’s Moonshot

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg is looking for nothing short of “step-function improvements” at the $94.6 billion aviation and defense behemoth. How he gets there could shape the future of manufacturing worldwide.

So you’ve moved beyond prototyping?
We’re well beyond prototyping. We are moving directly into implementation. Advanced manufacturing capabilities don’t become real until you put them into the factory. And the people who know how to make this work are the people who build airplanes. They have the best ideas; they know what works and what’s theoretical. Put them into the hands of our mechanics and they surprise us every time with how much they can do.

But not every supplier is at the same level.
They’re all at very different levels, which is why we have people to tailor our digitization approach for different company sizes. We spend a lot of time and investment in training and building capacity in our small business space because often we find the best ideas are in small businesses. We have a value-engineering project where we encourage our supply chain to bring ideas to us about things we could change inside of Boeing. That pipeline has a little over 2,000 ideas in it right now that we’re just moving our way through and implementing.

What advice would you give to a small or mid-size manufacturer who wants to supply Boeing?
Obviously, competitiveness is a big deal to us, so cost and quality are important. The ability to deliver reliably is also critical. Because we crank out airplanes when we say we’re going to deliver them our supply chain must be synchronized. We’re also looking for teammates willing to make targeted investments in digital transformation in a way that’s good for them and good for Boeing.

Also, the most important competitive challenge we face is building the future talent pipeline for aerospace manufacturing jobs of the future. We need kids who are interested in manufacturing and can see the advanced nature of those jobs. Our small business suppliers are great ways to attract and inspire and build that pipeline for the future.

How are you addressing the talent gap?
The STEM talent pipeline in the U.S. is woefully short of what we need. Not only for aerospace but for big industrial STEM generally. The global competition for talent is more severe than ever. We need to train future engineers and manufacturers on these leading-edge techniques, the digital threading, which is a different manufacturing job than what much of our workforce was originally trained in. We’re engaged at the front end of the pipeline all the way down to the grade school level now. That’s a big investment we make that involves hands-on learning and vocational training. We use our aerospace school in the Puget Sound region to drive vocational training, machining skills and aerospace manufacturing skills to create a pipeline for the future, as well as internship programs with colleges, early career rotation programs and continuous training for our in-house workforce.

We treat this as a total lifecycle investment. In our employee base, we talk about it as our long-range people plan. I’m a firm believer that the most important investment we make is in our people. That’s why I call it our “People First” strategy, because it enables our future.

AT&T uses massive online courses to reskill people. Does Boeing offer something similar?
We’re doing quite a bit of that. For example, we just recently ran one on what we called Model-based Systems Engineering. The idea is to retrain our engineers. Thousands of engineers are taking online classes and the feedback is fantastic because they love the learning. We’re doing it in a virtual way that’s affordable and enables cross-learning within the enterprise because it’s connecting different sites and constituencies that might not have been connected in the past.

“no single technology or technique is the key to success. it’s digitally connecting all these approaches.”

What differences in how Boeing manufactures will we see five years from today?
You will see new advanced manufacturing techniques, including heavy use of composite materials. For example, we’re opening a new composite wing center up in Everett that is building the wings for the 777X. It will be the largest composite wing ever built. You will also see greater customization in our factories through the use of additive manufacturing throughout the value chain, both in the factory and out in the field where we do support including spare part generation. Expect to see greater automation. Instead of all-robotic factories, we feel the future will see greater integration of people and robots working together.

What are the returns on artificial intelligence? What kind of future vision do you see as to the role of AI?
Some of our AI work goes hand in hand with automation. The key is to look for AI implementation where it adds value. For example, the intersection of AI with data analytics clearly optimizes operations. This helps in growing our services business. One of the biggest AI applications is identifying value-added services that build data-rich airplanes to optimize flight profiles, such as optimized fuel burn or whatever value proposition is most valuable to a customer.

What will likely be the next big innovation in travel? For example, 20 years from now will we be loading aircraft differently?
That could certainly be part of it. When you consider end-to-end optimization of the customer experience, the ground segment is important. How do you get to the airport? How do you process through the airport and get on the airplane? How do you deal with security? I expect to see changes in the technology of travel itself. It’s difficult to predict how fast the technology will evolve, but you can bet that with the amount of capital investment it will happen. We’ll see revolutions in propulsion technology, electrically powered airplanes and maybe flying taxis.

High-speed transportation will become more economical and offer the capability to go anywhere in the world in one to two hours on supersonic, hypersonic aircraft. That business model still needs some work, but the technology is moving fast enough that that will happen. We anticipate that a low-earth-orbit space travel business ecosystem will develop as access to space becomes more affordable. Also, low-gravity manufacturing in space will eventually become practical, and there will be a transportation network to do low earth orbit. I’ve always been a fan of deep space exploration—that will happen too. Before 2030 we’ll put the first person on Mars—and he or she will get there on a Boeing rocket.

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