Boeing Exec: Innovation Drives Evolution
Embry-Riddle alumnus Steve Nordlund, who now serves as vice president of Phantom Works at The Boeing Company, by his own admission, was never an A+ student.
“It took me a long time to figure out how to learn,” he said, in a recent Aviation Outlook webinar.
One thing he always had a firm handle on, however — and what he credits to his rise from serving as Embry-Riddle’s chief information officer, to joining with former Embry-Riddle president Steve Sliwa to help launch an aerospace company that would eventually be sold to Boeing, and later, to becoming an Embry-Riddle Trustee — is the value system on which the industry is built. Putting safety first and continually developing emerging technologies — those are the priorities that drive the industry forward, as well as transform self-proclaimed “mediocre” students into leaders.
Introducing Nordlund ahead of the virtual event, Embry-Riddle President P. Barry Butler described him as “the voice of The Boeing Company when it comes to urban air mobility.” Today, Nordlund oversees emerging technologies for the largest exporter in the United States — and that’s a field, he said, that is more important than ever before due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The next Aviation Outlook webinar event will feature alumnus, aviator and entrepreneur Jared Isaacman at 5 p.m. (EDT) Monday, March 29. Later this year, Isaacman will be mission commander of Inspiration4, the world’s first all-civilian mission to space. The mission is named in recognition of the four-person crew that will raise awareness and funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Register Now
“There’s resiliency in air travel,” he said. “We know how to recover from these shocks to the system.”
But it’s not enough for companies to simply weather the storm and wait for the rebound, he added. They need to adapt.
“Sometimes in these crises, we find the silver linings,” he said. “We find new ways to iterate and new ways to serve others, and I think there will be no exception in this crisis.”
Specifically, he sees opportunities in enhancing safety protocols, growing on-demand options and focusing on accessibility.
Those are the kinds of advances that spark cultural change, he said. Citing smartphones, he added that most young people have never lived without what are essentially mini supercomputers, right there in their pockets.
“And that’s created an expectation that many things are on-demand and available at any time,” he said. “I think we’re going to see a shift from the digital side of that to the physical side."
The faster that information travels and services are provided, the more we value our time, he added, which creates opportunities for innovations like urban air mobility. He asked, If it was affordable to travel by air from one side of a city or state, to avoid traffic and get where you’re going in a fraction of the time, why wouldn’t you do it?
“We’re getting to computer performance that now allows for true artificial intelligence to start to happen,” he said. “We’re getting to an internet of things and data collection that truly allows us to do things differently than we had in the past.”
And that evolution creates demand — and questions.
“How do we safely integrate autonomous systems, semi-autonomous systems, into our airspace?” he asked. “How do we use that technology the right way?”
Answering those questions will also be more challenging than ever before, he noted, due to the influx of competitors vying for a piece of the pie.
“There’s capital going into (this) space like never before, and I think we’re going to continue to see additional players enter into the marketplace,” he said. “So we’re going to have to continue evolving. … Just because we have strong roots doesn’t mean that the competitive barriers are down. We’ve got to go out and perform. We’ve got to go out and innovate. … We, as a country, I think, are going to lead the exploration of what’s out there.”
For Nordlund, that drive is nothing new. It all comes back to the value system he learned at Embry-Riddle. This is the way that business, the industry and people progress.
“We have learned a lot about aviation and aerospace in its first 100 years,” he added. “We have to make sure we take those learnings into the next wave.”