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Sustainability-oriented innovation: A Q&A with Lockheed Martin's Matthew Swibel

At Lockheed Martin, sustainability means thoughtful product development, customer trust, and data-based decisions

By Kara Baskin  |  April 1, 2016

Lockheed Martin's Matthew SwibelLockheed Martin's Matthew Swibel

At Lockheed Martin, sustainability can’t just be shoehorned into products. With massive projects like satellites and defense systems, the Bethesda, Md.-based corporation must make sustainable goals and practices a core part of processes and product developments.

In an interview, Lockheed Martin corporate sustainability director Matthew Swibel discussed what sustainability-oriented innovation looks like at the company, and what he will discuss when he appears at the April 15 MIT Sustainability Summit.

How does Lockheed Martin think about sustainability and product development?

Each of Lockheed Martin’s main product lines is oriented around systems integration. Our LM Energy line of business comprises solutions for renewable, clean, or highly efficient energy consumption.

In terms of manufacturing and business processes, we’re heavily invested in areas like 3-D printing, quantum computing, and secure processing. Unlike other companies that sell soap or diapers, we get one chance in roughly a 20- or 30-year timeline to design a very complex durable good that the customer expects to work every time, whether it’s a satellite, a cargo airlifter, or a missile defense system. We have to choose carefully what innovation breakthroughs we're seeking.

For instance, we recently won an Aviation Week Laureate Award for an automated air collision avoidance system. It’s saved 25 pilot lives. Every product cycle, we have to be so selective and exercise our engineering proficiency in determining what makes our systems more valuable. When we’re making improvements to our products, it’s more complex than a funkier design or a faster rinse cycle: It has consequence to human life. There’s a lot at stake.

What are we talking about when we reference corporate sustainability at Lockheed Martin?

Operationally, sustainability goes far beyond the carbon footprint of our factories. We’re [also] addressing factors that are becoming important in recruitment and presenting ourselves to future talent as an employer of choice. And, really, sustainability is a discriminator in the customer trust factor. If we’re not effectively managing the sustainability issues that our government customers are prioritizing, our business operations can become misaligned with customer expectations.

What will you discuss at the MIT Sustainability Summit?

I hope to contribute a couple of points at MIT. One is that I think successful sustainability is at the corner of engineering and science. If you think of science-based decision models, you have to have the right data, which tells you the impact of your innovations. Along the way, there is a very active and vocal community of sustainability practitioners who are always raising legitimate questions from bottom to top. Do we have the right signals and sensors in place to give us analysis and predictions that don’t rely on faulty assumption?