October 18, 2008
By GENE TRAINOR
DALLAS — Southern Methodist University will open an engineering laboratory that will be modeled after a Lockheed Martin research center considered among the most innovative in the world.
SMU’s Lockheed Martin Skunk Works Lab will open in December 2009 and will draw heavily from the management style forged by the defense contractor. Lockheed’s Skunk Works plant in Palmdale, Calif., develops the nation’s fastest, most versatile military jets and systems. Skunk Works also has offices in Fort Worth, where Lockheed builds fighter jets.
"Every groundbreaking technology that has produced an aircraft for the military has been thought about, tested and delivered by the Skunk Works," said Dianne Knippel, Skunk Works director of communication.
At SMU, teams of engineering students and faculty will work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to solve tough problems with tight deadlines, said Geoffrey Orsak, dean of SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering. Projects can include developing new ways to build roads, bridges, housing developments, and clean-water and power systems, any problem where "people didn’t know how to solve them," he said. Throughout their research, "we will be getting support from all branches of Skunk Works," including advice or visits, he said.
The research developed could then be parlayed with business plans developed at SMU’s Cox School of Business to create companies and jobs, Orsak said. The curriculum could also be spun out to engineering schools nationwide.
"We would consider this unsuccessful if we did not create new jobs and new companies for North Texas," Orsak said.
Skunk Works is known for a flat management style, with virtually nonexistent middle management. So faculty members will work with students as team members rather than bosses, Orsak said. He said the school lured Lockheed management into the partnership by offering a plan to solve the nation’s lack of qualified engineers, he said.
SMU’s lab will occupy about a sixth of the $22 million, 65,000-square-foot Caruth Hall, now under construction. The laboratory can expand or cut back as needed, Orsak said. But the project is not expected to cost much more because it will be folded into the engineering school’s current curriculum, he said. Any new faculty hired will need to thrive in this new environment that extends to the school’s administration.
"Right now we’re trying to strip away all middle management as much as we can," Orsak said.
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