Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America

Mark F. Miller, Vice President, Research & Engineering, Sikorsky Aircraft

As the head of an engineering organization with more than 3,000 employees, Mark Miller oversees design content in Sikorsky Aircraft development, production and aftermarket programs. His advanced projects group – Sikorsky Innovations – made history in September when it flew the X2 technology demonstrator at more than 250 kt. Mr. Miller observes, “One thing that I’m finding is the Sikorsky Innovations brand and buzz – the excitement about the technology – has been a real good draw for us to get talent from industry and fresh out of school.” Small groups of high-caliber engineers at Sikorsky Innovations have a broad charter, he explains. “We’ve asked them to innovate not just on products and technologies but to innovate on processes – doing things quicker and faster, maturing technologies and doing demonstrations quickly, and brokering the best talent that’s out there, no matter where it is.”

Mark Miller’s own aerospace engineering talent was nurtured at home in Burbank, California. He recalls, “Burbank really had only two industries when I grew up, the studios – it was the home of Johnny Carson – and aerospace – it was the home of Lockheed.” Harold Miller was a chemical engineer working for the county agriculture department, but he shared a deep interest in aviation with his son. “I grew up building airplane models,” says Mark Miller. “The whole garage was full of every aircraft imaginable. We used to take the pickup and go park at the end of the runway at Burbank airport. We’d let the Dodger games play on the radio, sit in the back of the truck, and watch airplanes fly over.”

Burbank High School led Mark Miller to undergraduate studies in mechanical engineering at UCLA and an internship at Lockheed. “I loved math and had an affection for aerospace, so engineering seemed kind of the natural direction, and I never considered anything else.” The internship during the second year at UCLA put the student-engineer in an advanced composite materials group building airliner-size structures. “They were doing an advanced composite fin and aileron, and I would actually get coupons and work on them.”

Graduation in 1981 nevertheless refocused the natural aerospace engineer on oil refineries and other earthly projects at Fluor Engineering and Constructors in Irvine. Mark Miller recalls, “With all that love of aerospace, I kind of thought, ‘I’ve been at this for a while, and I’ll try something a little different at Fluor.’ I did that for around three-and-a-half years and wanted to return to aerospace. I found I really did miss being around aircraft, seeing aircraft flying, being at the test sites. I decided I was right from the beginning; aerospace was where I belonged.”

Systems and Survivability
Mark Miller returned to aerospace doing systems and survivability engineering at Northrop Grumman Advanced Systems Division in Pico Rivera, California working on the B-2, YF-23, and generic classified programs. A subsequent opening at Lockheed put him back in Burbank at the legendary Skunk Works. “I ran the engineering development lab which did all the rapid prototyping for aircraft and parts – everything from the JASSM [Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff ] missile to parts and edges for the F-22 and ultimately JSF [Joint Strike Fighter].”
As deputy vice president of engineering and advanced programs at Lockheed, Mark Miller was recognized with a series of leadership awards. He recalls, “At that time, the SkunkWorks was the innovation arm for Lockheed Corporation. . . . It was very much a culture of small, empowered teams. The charter was really innovation for the corporation. The engineers were characterized by quite a bit of technical bandwidth – you were on small teams and had to cover quite a bit of territory.”
An opportunity at Sikorsky in Connecticut offered new challenges and a change in location. “I hadn’t done specific helicopter work, but I had dabbled in adjacent technologies,” explains Mr. Miller. “I liked the company. I liked the business.” He adds, “My wife is also from Burbank, and when we got married, she made me promise we wouldn’t spend our lives in the same town.”

Mark Miller joined Sikorsky as director of system engineering in 2000 and began working on the Comanche, UH-60M, Naval Hawk, and S-92 helicopter programs. “I was first of all very impressed when I came in with the technical competence of the group. A few folks tagged along with me, and I’ll never forget one very good CFD [Computational Fluid Dynamics] guy after working at Sikorsky a couple of months said, ‘Man, this is a complicated aircraft.’ If you look at the interactional aerodynamics of a helicopter, it is a complex machine.”

Sikorsky and the Skunk Works nevertheless had similarities, Mr. Miller observes. “The Skunk Works had an identity from Kelly Johnson and his aura. You come to Sikorsky and there’s a lot of pride and identity with Igor Sikorsky and innovation. I would say in both instances, it’s a very motivated workforce.” Mark Miller became Sikorsky vice president of system engineering and technology in May 2001 and injected a systems engineering rigor into the rich Sikorsky engineering tradition. “I think that was something that was needed,” he says. “There wasn’t a specific Systems Engineering group, and if you looked at the structure in place, you saw it could benefit from a more structured approach to management.”

Impetus For Innovation
Systems engineering discipline stressed rapid prototyping and formal systems requirements definition and flowdown. A chief engineer and chief systems engineer were assigned to every program. Mr. Miller observes, “The OEM [Original Equipment Manufacturer] that’s able to knit together a team on a program and do it seamlessly, that is a challenge that the whole industry is facing. . . . How do you stay ahead? It’s innovation – innovation in technology, innovation in manufacturing, and innovation in processes, both the design and business processes. How you select and manage your supply chain is as important as anything.”

Mark Miller became Sikorsky Vice President, Research and Engineering in February 2002, overseeing all the engineers assigned to the military, commercial, and aftermarket programs of Sikorsky Military Systems, Sikorsky Global Helicopters, and Sikorsky Aerospace Services. “I think it’s a healthy balance,” says Mark Miller. “One thing I’ve really tried to do is rotate engineers. I don’t like people to be in a single slot for 10 years. . . . There are lots of opportunities here to get people pretty broad exposure through the whole life cycle from proposal to aftermarket support.”

The Marine CH-53K Heavy Lift Replacement helicopter is now the largest single program supported by Research and Engineering, with almost 700 Sikorsky engineers and supply chain designers. “You never have all the engineers that you need,” acknowledges Mark Miller. “We have a good pipeline that we’ve set up.” Sikorsky maintains relationships with the former Rotorcraft Centers of Excellence – Georgia Tech, University of Maryland, and Penn State – and with other schools.

Sikorsky Engineering has set up its own Igor University with colleges for aerodynamics, avionics and other key disciplines and courseware available to engineers at distributed design locations. It has also worked to develop engineering partners on the S-92 and other programs. “If there are companies that can bring us design capability and design-build capability, we’ll do that. Key to that is we’ve really spent some time setting up the infrastructure where we can tap global capabilities seamlessly. If you’re working on one of our new programs, there’s a price of entry which is the same design tools, design suite, methodologies. By doing that, we’re trying as seamlessly as possible to leverage a global workforce as needed.” The design-in-context environment enables remote engineers to design parts in a shared, up-to-date model. A virtual build environment now enables production workers to assemble CH-53K parts in a computer-generated workspace. “We have very high expectations that the design tools are going to cut down cycle times and take cost out of development.”

Like most large engineering organizations, Sikorsky faces an aging workforce and must bridge the gap between very senior and very junior engineers. To mentor new engineers, the company has Technical Fellows. “I call them our Technical Gunslingers,” says Mr. Miller. “They are industry-recognized Greybeards . . . . We spend a lot of time trying to capture that knowledge and make it available to all of our engineers across all of our sites.”

Sikorsky Innovations stood up formally in late 2009 and gave the helicopter maker a Skunk Works-like rapid prototyping shop. “It shares some common themes and a bit of a common charter, but I think it’s uniquely positioned, certainly in the rotorcraft industry, to do things you don’t see a lot of. I think X2 is one good example of that,” says Mr. Miller. “We had a very robust technology program that we developed over the three or four years prior to forming Sikorsky Innovations. . . . We had our three technology pillars – speed, adaptive/aware aircraft and optionally piloted flight. . . . With Sikorsky Innovations, we put an exclamation mark on that. We put a brand on it.”

The advanced projects organization reports to Engineering but behaves like other Sikorsky profit-and-loss centers, according to Mr. Miller. “It has technology objectives; it has business objectives. It brings in contracts for research and development, but its main charter is to solve the toughest problems in vertical flight.”

The X2 demonstrator addressed the speed limitations of conventional helicopters and will now evolve into the S-97 Raider military demonstrator. Mr. Miller acknowledges X2 is a deservedly high-visibility project, but he notes Sikorsky Innovations has many technology efforts. “We’ll spin each one or parts of them as appropriate into our product line. It doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in a single product like an X2, which is really a suite of technologies.” Survivability technologies matured by Sikorsky Innovations are now in production Black Hawks. The successful Sandblaster demonstration aims at brownout countermeasures that fuse sensors with synthetic vision. An autonomous flight-following demonstration flown on the RASCAL fly-by-wire testbed, and an upcoming optionally-piloted helicopter demonstration with the productionized UH-60M Upgrade lay foundations for optionally-piloted rotorcraft. Active rotor blade research will optimize adaptive/aware rotorcraft for noise, performance, or ride comfort.

Sikorsky is part of the Vertical Lift Consortium (VLC) aiming to steer rotorcraft innovations. “I was on the board of RITA and CRI [the Rotorcraft Industry Technology Association and the Center for Rotorcraft Innovations], and I am on the VLC,” notes Mr. Miller. “I think there is a valid criticism of our industry in general as far as the overall lack of innovation. . . . There’s been subtle innovation certainly and parallel innovation, but I think it’s valid to say there hasn’t been a whole lot of overall innovation.

“We’re trying to address that internally with Sikorsky Innovations and get out and anticipate and create market needs, but I think the VLC is an attempt to weave government and the OEMs together with the non-traditional companies and academia and see if we can get critical mass and move the needle.”

Sikorsky nevertheless continues to fight its VLC partners for business, and Mark Miller concludes, “We’re in a global competitive landscape, embracing the fact that new ideas, new technologies can come from anywhere. So the world is our R&D sandbox. We’re really trying to be the first to market with these things and have others spend their time reacting to where we’ve been while we’re looking to solve the next problem.”

Leadership Profile: Vertiflite Winter 2010