Wharton | San Francisco EMBA Students Get VIP Tour at Boeing

First-year Wharton | San Francisco EMBA student Pradeep Fernandes recently organized a unique tour for classmates at the Boeing Company, where he is director of product strategy. We asked him to tell us about the visit. Here’s what he said:

Since I’ve been in Wharton’s EMBA program, I’ve noticed a high level of interest in the aerospace industry. In every class — from accounting to leadership to economics to strategy — there’s been an element of discussion about Boeing and Airbus. Outside of class, I’m often asked by classmates about how airplanes are developed, built and delivered.

Why is there so much interest? In addition to airplanes being cool, commercial aviation is a fascinating business. You can learn a lot by studying it. The industry is highly capital intensive, but low volume with high barriers to entry. Boeing has been around almost 100 years. Many other countries and companies have tried — and are still trying — to enter the market without success. A lot of people want to understand why this is such a difficult business to get into and how Boeing has survived for so long.

When I first presented the idea of a VIP tour of Boeing to my classmates, about 35 students from a diversity of industries and functions signed up. Many of those students wanted to bring partners and relatives so we ended up with more than 50 people on the tour.  

Boeing was very supportive of our tour and provided bus transportation from Seattle to its factory in Everett, which is about 30 miles away. We began the tour at the commercial airplane headquarters where the vice president of supplier management discussed challenges of managing an aerospace supply chain. It was a very engaging discussion with a lot of Q&A. Students asked things like: If you built the 787 all over again, would you follow the same model? How many parts are used in an airplane? (Boeing procures 783 million parts in one year.) Where do those parts come from? (5,400 factories around the world) How much is spent on supplies? ($28 billion)

Then, we went to the facility where Boeing builds its wide body airplanes: the 747, 767, 777 and 787 (the Dreamliner).  Our VIP tour guide walked students along those production lines, describing how each airplane is built. Students even got to see a 747 priced at $350-million (list price) being built for a private individual.

I’ve been an aerospace engineer at Boeing for four years so I gave a tour to some students too. I showed them how the wings are built, how the landing gear is incorporated into the airplane, and how the airplanes move continuously down the production line, taking the scaffolding and tools with them. A former commercial pilot and Wharton alumnus, who works at Boeing, also talked to students.

The final part of the tour was to our Production Integration Center where we keep track of every single part that goes into the Dreamliner worldwide. We know when every part leaves a supplier and arrives at the assembly site. We also track geographical disturbances around the world so our procurement agents are aware of possible supply chain disruptions. As we were there, we heard dings indicating minor earthquakes happening. The system tracks security alerts too, such as terrorist attacks or criminal activity that might impact our supply chain. It’s a 24-7 operation.

I was very proud to show off Boeing and its products to my classmates, and to share our excitement for the aerospace industry. Afterward, we headed to a local brewery for dinner before flying back to San Francisco for classes the next day. Prof. Ziv Katalan, who was on the tour and teaches operations management, used many Boeing-related examples in his class that weekend.

Overall, the visit was a valuable complement to what we’re learning about in our classes. It really brought theory and practice together. It also was a once in a lifetime experience to get that kind of insider’s tour of Boeing because the company doesn’t usually allow visitors on the floor. Already, I’ve been asked if we can make this a recurring trip for Wharton students. It was a big hit!