From farm to final frontier: How Boeing’s CEO plants the seeds for tomorrow’s tech

Dennis Muilenburg
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg grew up on a farm in Iowa. (Boeing Photo)

Dennis Muilenburg is leading Boeing into a second century of innovation with dreams of hypersonic flight, self-flying planes and journeys to Mars. But to lead the way, the 102-year-old company’s CEO, chairman and president turns to the values he learned from his dad growing up on a farm in northwest Iowa.

“He was never a big business executive, but at his core he taught me about integrity, the value of hard work, the fundamentals,” Muilenburg, 54, recalled during a recent conference on innovation. “And even in a big business, those work.”

Boeing certainly qualifies as a big business, and since Muilenburg took on the top post in 2015, the company’s ambitions have become even bigger.

Under his leadership, the company has rolled out the latest generation of its best-selling airplane, the single-aisle 737 MAX. It’s begun production of its next-generation, wide-body 777X. Boeing has also created a new business unit focused on servicing the airplanes that it sells — a power play that Muilenburg says could eventually contribute $50 billion a year to Boeing’s revenues. And just in the past month, Boeing Defense, Space & Security has won three high-profile defense contracts.

Looking ahead, Muilenburg and Boeing are closing in on key decisions about its next clean-sheet airplane design, known variously as the New Midsize Aircraft, NMA or 797. And two Boeing 747-8 jets are being remade into red-white-and-blue Air Force One planes, thanks in no small measure to Muilenburg’s personal sales pitch to President Donald Trump.

Not bad work for an Iowa farmboy.

At this week’s GeekWire Summit in downtown Seattle, we’ll be talking with Muilenburg about his Midwest past, and we’ll touch on the challenges he’s presently facing at Boeing (including this summer’s logjam of 737 jets at Boeing’s Renton factory and next month’s anticipated first delivery of Boeing’s KC-46 tankers to the Air Force). But most of the attention will be focused on Muilenburg’s vision for Boeing’s second century.

Few people are more familiar with how far the company has come — in part because Muilenburg has spent his entire 33-year career at Boeing, starting out as an intern from Iowa State University and moving on to engineering and management roles in Boeing’s defense programs, air traffic management and executive strategy.

Few people are more anxious to take the company further — in part because of Muilenburg’s early love of the space program. Like another 54-year-old CEO, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Muilenburg was inspired in his youth by the first moon landing in 1969. His childhood hero? Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, of course.

“I wanted to design aircraft and spacecraft, to someday be on the team that puts the first person on Mars,” Muilenburg told an interviewer.

Decades later, Muilenburg is working to make that wish come true. Here are five high-tech frontiers that are on his mind — including Mars:

Aerospace as a service

The spinout of Boeing Global Services as a separate business unit is only the most visible sign that Muilenburg is putting more emphasis on what happens to Boeing’s airplanes after they’re delivered.

The company is growing the data analytics branch of its business, Boeing AnalytX, to offer products and services that optimize its customers’ operations. And it plans to use the New Midsize Aircraft as the proving ground for a business model that leverages big data in every phase of an airplane’s life cycle.

“This is perhaps the biggest transformation that’s happening at our company,” Muilenburg said at the Farnborough Air Show in July.

Manufacturing innovations

The 777X production process is blazing new trails for automation and the use of composite materials in aerospace manufacturing, but Muilenburg doesn’t intend to stop there.

Last year, Boeing revved up its HorizonX program to uncover and accelerate potentially transformative technologies through targeted investments in startups. The HorizonX portfolio now includes companies specializing in additive manufacturing, electric propulsion, advanced batteries, augmented and virtual reality, exotic metal alloys and other technological twists that are likely to turn up in next-generation Boeing aircraft.

“We have to be willing to out-innovate ourselves,” Muilenburg has said.

Autonomous air vehicles

Muilenburg made a splash this year when he predicted that self-flying air taxis will “happen faster than any of us understand” — but Aurora Flight Sciences, which became a Boeing subsidiary last year, is already working to make that prediction come true.

Last month, Boeing announced that the development of autonomous air vehicles would be the focus of a new research center to be opened in Cambridge, Mass., staffed by engineers from Aurora and other Boeing teams. Even before its acquisition, Aurora was developing an electric-powered, vertical-takeoff-and-landing craft for Uber’s planned air taxi service.

“Think of it as flying cars,” Muilenburg said recently. “We hope to fly a first prototype next year.”

Another Boeing subsidiary, Insitu, has long fielded fixed-wing drones for military and emergency response applications. Last month, Boeing won a competitive contract for the U.S. Navy’s autonomous refueling air vehicle, known as the MQ-25 Stingray. And several of Boeing’s HorizonX investments have gone to drone-related startups such as Matternet, Kittyhawk, Fortem Technologies and Near Earth Autonomy.

Hypersonic flight

Remember the Boeing SST? Boeing proposed building a Concorde-like supersonic transport plane in the 1960s, but support for the concept was canceled in 1971 amid concerns about noise and pollution. The dream hasn’t died, however. Boeing is working on technologies aimed at making supersonic planes quieter, cleaner, faster and more financially viable.

This summer, Boeing unveiled its latest concept for a hypersonic transport plane, capable of traveling more than five times the speed of sound. Such a plane could fly between New York and London in as little as two hours. Muilenburg said it’s a concept that “one day could redefine aviation and connect the world faster than ever.”

Boeing’s interest isn’t merely a case of creating computer-generated concept art. This year, Boeing participated in a $37.3 million investment round for Reaction Engines, a British venture working on hybrid rocket-jet propulsion technology for hypersonic flight.

The space marketplace

SpaceX and Blue Origin have been getting a lot more of the spotlight lately in the commercial space race, but Boeing and its assimilated companies have been making space history since the days of Project Mercury. Boeing was the prime contractor for the International Space Station, and its CST-100 Starliner space taxi is due to start flying astronauts to the station next year. It’s also working on the XS-1 Phantom Express space plane for the Pentagon.

Muilenburg isn’t as brash as SpaceX’s Elon Musk, which fits the Iowa farmboy image. But he’s just as ambitious when it comes to imagining humanity’s long-term future in space. During a recent talk at Northwestern University, not far from Boeing’s corporate headquarters in Chicago, Muilenburg laid out a vision for an entire transportation ecosystem that extends Boeing’s reach from air travel to an “economically viable marketplace” in Earth orbit.

And what about Mars? Muilenburg notes that Boeing is a leading contractor for NASA’s Space Launch System, which is being built to send astronauts beyond Earth orbit and eventually to the Red Planet. NASA’s schedule calls for trips to Mars to begin in the 2030s, but Muilenburg sounds as if he wants to accelerate that timetable — and overtake SpaceX in the process.

“I certainly anticipate that we’re going to put the first person on Mars during my lifetime, and I’m hopeful that we’ll do it in the next decade,” Muilenburg said in April. “And I’m convinced that the first person that gets to Mars is going to get there on a Boeing rocket.”

Got a question for Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg? Leave your suggestions as comments below. You can hear Muilenburg live onstage during a Q&A with Alan Boyle on Wednesday at the GeekWire Summit in downtown Seattle. Check out the Summit website for complete information, but don’t delay: Ticket sales end on Monday, Oct. 1.