We sat down recently with SME Fellow Douglas Decker, an internationally known expert in the field of advanced composites fabrication and assembly, to discuss his background and innovative approaches on several critical military programs. After more than 37 years of supporting the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the composites industry, Decker retired as a tech fellow at Northrop Grumman and is now serving the broader composites community as president of The Composites Consultants.
SME: You have had an extensive career in aerospace. How and why did you enter the field?
Decker: I was fortunate enough to be raised by a mother with a history of pushing the envelope. She earned her personal pilot’s license in the late 1930s, just a few years before the U.S. entered World War II and only 36 years after the Wright Brothers took their first flight. Few people, especially women, were pilots back then.
I also consider myself fortunate that I grew up during the earliest phases of the U.S. space program. I was in first grade when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. The “space race” was a huge thing back then that energized the entire nation, and it sure caught the attention of this seven-year-old boy growing up in Phoenix. I remember my G.I. Joe “action figure” dressed up as an astronaut and playing a 45 rpm record of Glenn’s words during the flight, over and over again until I wore it out. Needless to say, I made up my mind that I was going to be an astronaut someday.
The maximum height for a Mercury astronaut was 5' 11". My heart remained committed but my body had other ideas. I kept growing and quickly shot past the height requirements for both astronauts and fighter pilots (my Plan B). I am 6' 5" tall now. Fortunately, that helped me obtain my degree in aeronautical engineering technology on a football scholarship at Arizona State University (ASU), Tempe, Ariz.
Surprisingly, later in my mother’s life, she became close friends with Neil Armstrong when she met him on a trip to the North Pole that he and Sir Edmund Hillary were involved in. I have a personally autographed photo of Neil Armstrong hanging in my office. That photo and pictures of him and my mother taken at the North Pole are my most cherished possessions.
SME: What part of your education prepared you for your career?
Decker: My career has been focused on advanced composites in aerospace. Although my college education provided me a solid base in engineering, it took place in the 1970s when there was very little coverage of composites. I can only remember one chapter on advanced composites in my materials class and the professor said we would not be tested on it. I will leave you to guess whether I studied it or not.
I did have a lab where the older professor actually had us make airfoils out of linen and dope, just like the Wright Brothers. Who knows, it may come in handy someday.
SME: Did your early work environment have any impact on your career trajectory?
Decker: I entered the workforce in late 1981 as an entry-level engineer in the Manufacturing Technology Department at Northrop Grumman. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend the vast majority of my time in hands-on work. I was “learning by doing.” Young engineers were responsible for planning projects and designing the test articles and tooling as well as every aspect of building the parts. That included tool prep, lay-up, bagging, cure cycle monitoring, and debagging and inspection.
Unfortunately, I see the opportunities for this level of hands-on experience are not as available to entry-level engineers in the industry. I believe this is a real loss to the individual engineers as well as the industry as a whole.
SME: Tell us about some of the programs and types of structures you have worked on.
Decker: I have been fortunate to have had a relatively broad opportunity to work on different types and classes of composite vehicles, from fighter aircraft to bombers to satellites to large ship structures. Each of those types has unique attributes that demand specific areas of focus. They are all different.
SME: How are things different in the industry now?
Decker: On the purely engineering side of things, there has been a real revolution in composites over the years, from small, nonstructural detail parts designed as “black aluminum” to large, integrated, bonded structures.
As to the cultural environment, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I spoke of how the race to the moon energized me. We are beginning to see the same level of goals that can excite a generation, such as going back to the moon and then on to Mars.
The average age of the engineers during the first lunar landing was 27. I was fortunate enough to talk with the 24-year-old engineer that made the “go/no-go” decision to proceed with the landing, despite all of the computer alarms they were receiving. Today, SpaceX is an excellent example of young engineers changing the industry.
There have also been significant changes in both material types and methods of manufacturing. Material has evolved from autoclave-cured, epoxy bleed systems to net resin, out-of-autoclave cure systems. There have also been significant advances in automation, the innovation of additive manufacturing, and the reemergence of thermoplastics after its rise and fall during the 1980s.
SME: What are some of the biggest challenges you see now and in the future?
Decker: The certification of large, bonded structures and the ability to strictly control the processes is an ongoing challenge. On the other end, urban air mobility will be driving the industry toward low-cost, Detroit-like mass production.
Workforce retention and balance are also significant issues throughout the industry. There is a big gap in seniority between the senior people and new hires. There are very few mid-career people to bridge the divide between senior engineers and new hires due to a 10-year span in the industry when there was little hiring.
SME: We know you are currently consulting in the aerospace industry—do you have any words of wisdom for those presently engaged in aerospace?
Decker: Remain active and engaged with the academic community, professional organizations such as SME and don’t forget to “pay-it-back” by mentoring.
The 2020 SME Education Foundation Board of Directors have taken office. The governing body of the Foundation, the board is comprised of leaders from industry and academia.
2020 SME Education Foundation Officers:
2020 SME Education Foundation President Irv McPhail is the founder and chief strategy officer of The McPhail Group LLC, a global higher education consulting practice. In 2007, he joined the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering Inc. and was named president and CEO in 2009. He has served as a college president or chancellor of colleges and universities in Baltimore, St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn.
McPhail earned an academic scholarship to Cornell University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in development sociology. He holds a master’s degree in reading from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. McPhail was a National Fellowships Fund Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned his doctorate in reading/language arts. McPhail joined the SME Education Foundation Board of Directors in 2010. He has been an SME member since 2018.
Visit smeef.org/leadership to view the complete bios and photos of the Foundation’s Board of Directors.
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