Malvern Atherton, SDM ’04: Systems Thinking and the Human Components of Flight

Malvern Atherton By Cody Romano
July 20, 2011

Although the Rolls-Royce brand may evoke thoughts of royalty for some consumers, the office of Malvern Atherton, an SDM alumnus and the company’s chief design engineer for control systems in Indianapolis, is strikingly meritocratic. An open-plan area with low cubicle walls allows him to sit among his staff engineers, exchanging creative ideas and reviewing their proposals. With 20 years of experience engineering jet engine control systems, Atherton is well equipped to decide whether or not to approve each design.

Still, each stamp of approval requires careful consideration, since an engine control system behaves much like the essential nervous system of an aircraft. It keeps watch over a network of various software components and mechanical parts that must coalesce flawlessly before the plane or helicopter can take off. Dozens of commercial and military aircrafts depend on systems developed by Atherton and his team, including the US Air Force’s Global Hawk.

SDM ’04 Malvern Atherton, Chief Design Engineer for Control Systems at Rolls-Royce, standing next to the Rolls-Royce AE3007A1E turbofan engine, used on the Embraer ERJ145 family of regional jets and business jets. This engine is similar to those used on the Cessna Citation X business jet and the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle.
Photos courtesy of Rolls-Royce

"After I’ve reviewed proposals for our engine control systems, I sometimes sit with engineers and ask why they’ve made certain design decisions," Atherton said. "By challenging them to improve their process, I’m passing on lessons I’ve learned."

One lesson in particular prepared Atherton for his recent promotion to a more senior management role at Rolls-Royce: the success of systems, however technical or complex, often depends on individual people and personalities in the workplace. Upon graduating from the SDM program in 2005, he returned to his company’s largest North American operations in Indianapolis with a heightened awareness of what he calls the "non-technical aspects" of systems.

"Having access through the SDM program to MIT’s Sloan School of Management was particularly valuable for me," the engineer explained, "because it taught me to think about the human, cultural aspects of system design. I learned to ask questions like, ‘What do my team members really want?’ and ‘What are their unique talents?’"

Appreciating cultural nuances is especially important for employees of a global company like Rolls-Royce, which has business sectors scattered throughout North America, the United Kingdom and the world, Atherton says. Now that he has developed a broader understanding of culture as it relates to management, the engineer feels more comfortable publicly promoting his company’s products. He proudly highlighted the features of a jet engine, for instance, during a meeting with leaders of a European company that manufactures helicopters. "I’ve learned how to adapt my communication style when speaking with different clients," said Atherton, "and in that sense I’ve become a much more confident, effective negotiator."

Even prior to the start of his engineering career, Atherton knew that he wanted to study at MIT; one of his favorite teachers in high school, a skilled mathematician, had earned his PhD from the Institute. Although Atherton went on to study at several other institutions before matriculating at the SDM program in 2004, his entire academic career is a testament to the MIT motto "Mind and Hand."

The young engineer completed a thorough regimen of courses, ranging from robotics to digital systems design, while earning his BSc in electrical and mechanical engineering from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1988. Outside of the lecture hall, Atherton applied these systems theories to hands-on projects, earning the UK Institute of Mechanical Engineers’ coveted Project Prize award for one of his devices, a computer-controlled system that analyzed vibrations. As a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) in England, Atherton concentrated on control systems. His studies prepared him to join Rolls-Royce as an engine control systems engineer shortly after his graduation in 1989.

After 14 years developing controls for jet fighters, prop planes, and helicopters, among other complex systems-based projects, Atherton was delighted to realize his goal of studying at MIT. Joining the SDM program in 2004, he networked with other aviation and aerospace professionals, including Hamilton Sundstrand Vice President Thomas Pelland and Hamilton Sundstrand Electronic Design Manager Steve Bresnahan, a vendor for Rolls-Royce. "In general, we were deeply impressed with the depth and breadth of SDM’s curriculum," said Atherton, "and with its relevance to our industry in particular."

Malvern Atherton
Photo courtesy of Rolls-Royce