KALAMAZOO, Mich.—“Brilliance is in the basics.” It’s a quote aerospace engineering alumnus Adam Houtman uses to describe not only aircraft design but also something Western Michigan University's College of Engineering and Applied Sciences faculty incorporate into the curriculum.
“Our professors emphasized the why and how behind solving problems,” says Houtman, who graduated in 2013. “Boil down the problem to its simplest and most distinct parts, then act on those. This has always been vital in solving complicated problems that come with designing aircraft.” And staying connected to Western also has helped Houtman's career.
"I have shared love of aviation with Dr. G. His teaching left a big impact on me," says Houtman of Dr. Peter Gustafson, professor of mechanical engineer. "Dr. G., like many other WMU professors, embraces mentoring as much as teaching a subject and no engineer can get far without good mentors!"
Currently, Houtman works as an aerospace engineer at WACO Aircraft in Battle Creek, Michigan, leading technical efforts to define the company’s next product.
“Day-to-day, this means a lot of surfacing in CAD, pouring over published technical data on competitor’s airplanes, learning different manufacturing methods, and analyzing aerodynamics, performance, weight, stability and control, and even avionics,” Houtman says. “As the lead configurator, this also entails a lot of documentation and ensuring the aircraft design comes together properly.”
The aircraft design industry is both exciting and challenging. On one hand, designers have access to a proliferation of exciting emerging technology such as electric propulsion, so called “Digital Thread” and “Digital Twin” engineering, advanced flight controls and network operations. On the other hand, the necessity of compliance for safety and usefulness slows down innovation.
“In my field, designers have a lot more freedom than they had 20 years ago—figuring out how to streamline requirements to speed up innovation is also a factor,” explains Houtman. “I see this period as almost a 2nd Golden Age of aviation. Time will tell what actually works and doesn’t but for now it is great fun to draw airplanes for a living!”
Houtman began his career following graduation at Lancair in Oregon where he provided engineering support and development on high performance, all composite aircraft. While there, he began honing his engineering skills in this hands-on, highly accountable position.
In 2016, he began a five-year stint on Lockheed’s advanced development program known as “Skunk Works” as part of the conceptual design team in Fort Worth, Texas.
“On that team I developed my aircraft design and business acumen,” he says. “After five years, I came back home to join WACO as they go through a period of major redevelopment.”
As Houtman continues to pursue the next aircraft design for his employer, he continues to focus on the basics and the details … and pursuing information to grow his personal and professional pursuits.
“I have learned that one has to be aggressive about continuously learning. Read a lot, seek out feedback, and seek experiences that will help you grown,” says Houtman.
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