By Jamie Gull | October 2008
I am a lucky recent college graduate who has one of the best jobs the aerospace industry. I am a structural design engineer at Scaled Composites located outside of Los Angeles. We arguably are the most innovative and fast-paced company in the industry. The most exciting project right now is the SpaceShipTwo/WhiteKnightTwo duo that will propel Virgin Galactic customers to space in a few years. Just a few weeks ago, right before Oshkosh, WhiteKnightTwo was rolled out and the press showed up in droves in our tiny desert outpost.
My position is the lead structural design engineer for Scaled Composites' Empennage Group, which is working on a new airplane design. Scaled Composites is a small, fast-paced company that does what larger companies do - only quicker and with fewer people. However, this will change in a few months as more people are added to the program. There is no way I would have this type of opportunity or position at any normal aerospace company as a recent college graduate that started working in April.
Engineers are the heart of Scaled Composites; the whole company revolves around rapidly designing and building innovative new products. Engineers here don't just publish drawings and pass off their design: they take the design through the whole building process, working out issues throughout the process which allows the design to be quick and modifiable on the fly. Throughout a project, an engineer probably spends one third to half of their time on the shop floor working with fabricators. In addition, the engineer Â¿ownsÂ¿ their design and is responsible for its completion and success. The usual process controls and drawing sign-offs do not exist; sometimes Â¿drawingsÂ¿ are sketches on an engineering pad.
My typical day revolves around furthering the preliminary design of our new airplane. Since we are in an early phase of the project, I spend all my time in the engineering area and not in the shop. I spend at least three quarters of my time at my computer, working mostly on layout and sizing of structural members and doing configuration trade studies. Right now, the structures group is comprised of three engineers: wing, fuselage, and empennage. We spend a good deal of time bouncing ideas off of each other and figuring out how our sections will interface.
The primary tool we use is Microsoft Excel. All of our parts, weights, layouts, etc. are calculated in Excel as a first pass, and often even the more detailed sizing is done with Excel. Our CAD package is CATIA which we use for layout and shaping of parts. As a purely composite company, we use a software package called HyperSizer which sizes and calculates failure loads and modes in composite parts. This tool is especially useful for sizing panels for buckling. I have just started using FEMAP with NASTRAN as a method to make a rough model of the whole aircraft to see how different pieces interact. I had used both Excel and CATIA before starting at Scaled, but I have learned both HyperSizer and FEMAP during my work here - mostly on my own.
I had a brief stint at Boeing as an intern, so I have seen both ends of the aerospace industry spectrum. While large companies certainly have some advantages, I much prefer the fast-paced and self-reliant nature of a small, nimble company. I highly doubt that at a prime company I could suggest that a FEA program would be a good tool to look at a trade study. At Scaled Composites, I was allowed to use a license and figure out how to use the program. The culture at this company is one of self-initiative and respect for your fellow engineers and the different methods of solving problems. The company shies away from specialists and focuses on well-rounded designers who have strengths that complement their teammates' strengths. I would compare the office culture to Silicon Valley. It's very relaxed with a flat organizational structure that emphasizes team performance over hierarchal roles.
The advice I would give to anyone who wants to move to a similar position in a smaller company in aerospace is that the most important aspect is to show initiative and the willingness to try something on your own and get help when necessary. There wonÂ¿t be any hand-holding or comfortable half-effort careers. The reward is doing actual design engineering every day on exciting projects and learning a myriad of new skills quickly. It's worth it.