Alumnus Applies SDM Lessons to Aerospace Industry

Bob Smith

By Kathryn O’Neill, managing editor, SDM Pulse
October 1, 2010Bob Smith, SDM ’97, doesn’t take systems thinking lightly. As chief technology officer of Honeywell Aerospace, he’s using everything he learned in MIT’s System Design and Management Program (SDM)—and more—to consider how to change the way aircraft fly. The goal is to minimize delays, ease congestion, and improve fuel efficiency.

“Air traffic control is a system of systems challenge,” Smith said. “It includes airline operators who want a high utility of assets, airports, the regulatory environment, and other systems that must be integrated very well to achieve more efficient route structures and free up capacity at major airports.”

Honeywell Aerospace serves three major industry markets-defense, air transport, and business and general aviation. A division within Honeywell International, it provides a broad range of products, both mechanical and electrical, from propulsion jet engines to radar to avionics.

“We make many of the underlying technologies [used in airplanes], so we have to work that system of systems problem,” he said. “Fortunately, we’ve been able to work with both Eurocontrol (the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation) and the FAA (the US Federal Aviation Administration) …. We’re conducting research on how to develop certain navigation systems and how to get that systems-level analysis and research done so that we can be in on the deployment level of the national airspace transformation as we evolve from a ground-based system of air traffic control to a satellite-based system of air traffic management.”

While Honeywell Aerospace is working on the big-picture issues, it must also take on the day-to-day systems challenges. “There are probably three different fundamental ways in which systems thinking is really affecting our business,” Smith said. The problem of air traffic control is one, he said, and the second is the increasing demand for tighter integration of aircraft systems components. For example, the US Defense Department’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a very small aircraft that needs to perform many different tasks- according to the DOD, it’s designed to be “affordable, lethal, supportable, and survivable”—so tight integration is a necessity, Smith said.

Thirdly, Honeywell is increasingly assuming more program management functions-ensuring that Honeywell components work well with each other and with third party components too, a classic systems challenge. “A couple of generations ago,” Smith said, “they would ask Honeywell to build an auxiliary power unit, and we would say here’s our gas turbine engine. That would be it. Now we also have the responsibility for integrating the generator and the muffler. There’s an evolution there where they want you to help design the whole tail cone.”

Smith brings years of experience to tackling the complex challenges at Honeywell Aerospace. A technical expert in guidance navigation and control, he rose to hold leadership roles as system director at The Aerospace Corporation and executive director at United Space Alliance before joining Honeywell in 2004 as vice president of advanced technology. He was promoted to chief technology officer in September 2009.

He also brings with him the lessons he learned at SDM in the late 1990s. “I liked SDM for a couple reasons,” he said. “The program did a really nice job providing a good balance of the critical aspects needed to be successful as a business or functional leader in the aerospace industry: technical acumen, managerial capabilities, and an understanding of how to manage system complexity.”

Smith said he has particularly valued the organizational design and development tools he learned at SDM. Since change management is an ongoing occurrence, “you can always tune up your business using these tools,” he said. “I was able to apply [them] on day one at Honeywell.”

SDM also connected Smith to a network of systems professionals that continues to serve him well today. “That network has been preserved, and it’s one that I really value,” Smith said.

“My fellow SDM students were outstanding. For me, being in a program that is for people who have had some experience in business—not students fresh out of school—led to a much richer experience,” he said. “[Class discussions] weren’t theoretical, but based on real-world experience.”

Smith has agreed to give a presentation to current SDM students in spring 2011. Although he has not zeroed in on a topic yet, he said he will likely focus on some of the larger socioeconomic trends he sees and ways to respond to them. For example, he said Honeywell is working on sustainability issues, including green fuel development. “The drive for fuel efficiency is built into everything we do,” he said. “If you can make a plane lighter and use less fuel, people will pay for that and the environment will benefit.”

Smith said systems thinking is fundamental to all these efforts—which is why his SDM experience continues to be relevant more than 10 years later. “Being able to understand the complexity of the business interactions and the necessity of technical iterations is increasingly important,” he said. “The trajectory of technology and systems and organizations have evolved where interoperability is a requirement now in almost every field.” This trend is likely to continue, he said, with more and more businesses taking on system of systems challenges.