At a recent science and engineering festival, Ray O. Johnson discussed how it is important for engineers’ careers to keep pace on the cusp of the growing fields of advanced robotics and digital manufacturing. Johnson also said tomorrow’s engineers will need to be well-rounded individuals who possess knowledge beyond core competencies.
Lockheed Martin is possibly the largest employer of engineers in the United States, employing 60,000 technical staff. Engineering.com’s Todd Sierer sat down with Dr. Ray O. Johnson, chief technology officer of Lockheed Martin, at the recent USA Science & Engineering Festival.
Sierer: Lockheed Martin is an enormous company. Why focus, why invest, why spend the time on a student festival?
Johnson: It’s really important for the nation, it’s important for our competitiveness. What we find is that not enough kids today are going into the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and that exists for a variety of reasons.
One of the reasons is that the subjects associated with STEM are difficult: studying calculus, studying physics. And what we do here at this festival, in our thousands of hands-on demonstrations, we take that difficult subject of STEM and make it a fun subject of learning about science and engineering.
Sierer: What is it that keeps people away from STEM?
Johnson: I think there are many options in the students’ minds and maybe not so much pressure from parents to go into engineering or scientific fields. That’s what’s so important.
What we’re doing is instilling the passion that will get the kids excited about it (STEM) that will then allow them (students) to tackle those difficult subjects. Which by the way, as we know, seem more difficult than they really are, right? After you start doing them, then you realize that it’s really not that hard.
Sierer: How many engineers does Lockheed Martin employ?
Johnson: We have roughly 60,000 engineers, scientists, and technology professionals in the corporation. Roughly 50 percent of our employees are in the technical areas.
Sierer: You have such unique vantage point by being so large. Is there any one or two areas that you see as an absolute high-flying trend for people to get into?
Johnson: Number one is robotics… We know that the capability of robotic systems will continue to increase as autonomy does. I think that’s an area that will continue growing without bound.
[A second trend] links the engineering workforce on the production side with opportunities for tomorrow… let’s call that advanced manufacturing. And when you think about linking advanced manufacturing with digital design (so from concept, to production, to sustainment) having that be a digital flow. This digital flow is then moved down into the supply chain. We call that the digital tapestry. Now link that to advanced manufacturing, whether it’s additive manufacturing or other methods, and you can really revolutionize the way things are made, which will ultimately impact things like the size, weight, and power [of products], enabling new capabilities… Finally, when you couple that with new materials, new material science, and what chemistry is doing in the area of nanotechnology… [there are] huge opportunities.
Sierer: This is a difficult time from a job market standpoint, and engineers have been a bit threatened. Are there any particular skills that maybe aren’t taught in schools that you see are valuable for an engineer to be hireable in this environment?
Johnson: I think there are three extensions, if you will, from engineering that would be valuable. Number one, the humanities. It’s important to help spur creativity that the humanities are studied. Whether that’s art, or music, or some field that makes you expand your mind.
[Second is the] transition into the core engineering… you have to have a good solid foundation in all the engineering sciences. I think I would recommend against over-specialization, especially at the undergraduate level. Make sure to get a broad knowledge of engineering… The interdisciplinary nature of problems today are going to put people who may have an electrical engineering degree working in chemistry or biology or other areas, and you need to understand those.
Finally, engineers need to have some knowledge of business. Take some business classes, maybe get an MBA after graduating. That way, you kind of go from concept engineering, and all the core disciplines there, and then finally to business. So what it does is it takes you from invention, the creation of the idea, to innovation, the application of the idea, to products and services.