30-year Boeing veteran honored with Black Engineer of the Year Award

Dr. Alain Adjorlolo shares his story of mettle and metal.

February 22, 2021 in Our People

Dr. Alain Adjorlolo, recipient of the 2021 Black Employee of the Year Award, standing next to a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Marian Lockhart

During routine 787 Dreamliner flight tests a decade ago, flight test pilots were startled by sudden popping sounds coming from the flight deck.

The noise, loud and sharp, was caused by movement between the flight deck window and the cab structure when the cabin pressure and outside temperature changed. With just a few weeks until the first customer delivery, the Boeing engineering team, which included Dr. Alain Adjorlolo, knew they had to understand the issue and develop a safe and certifiable solution.

Given his extensive expertise in corrosion and wear prevention – a discipline that comprehends damage, wear or deformation of material at solid interfaces – Adjorlolo understood that the movement, although noisy, was safe. He applied a release spray to the window frames of the static test airplane. A series of on-the-ground simulations on the static airplane and subsequent flight tests on two airplanes proved the solution worked – the popping noise was silenced. The spray helped the team deliver a quality product to the customer and avoid an unnecessary redesign of the flight deck window or window frame. The spray is still used on all 787 airplanes.

“I strongly believe in simple solutions, and I apply that rule to everything I do,” Adjorlolo said.

Throughout his 30-year career at Boeing, he has approached the most complex issues with simplicity in mind. This philosophy was largely influenced by a series of challenges he experienced early in life.

He grew up in Grand-Lahou, a small town in West Africa’s Ivory Coast. His parents valued education and inspired Adjorlolo and his 12 siblings to attend college. From a young age, he excelled in math and science.

“I learned that processing materials of all kinds was a key technology enabler for developing societies,” Adjorlolo said. “I was hooked.”

He wanted to understand why materials behaved the way they did and set his sights on studying metallurgy in college. But the subject was not an available option in his home country.

Undeterred, he pursued and landed a scholarship to study metallurgy at the University of Washington in Seattle. His father was proud of his son’s initiative but ambivalent.

“My dad was primarily concerned about the gun culture and the racism in the U.S.,” Adjorlolo said. “He was quite anxious about my decision to study here.”

And his father’s fears were sometimes confirmed. He says he had to get used to living in a place where he was often reminded of his race.

“We had all followed the Civil Rights Movement at home,” he said. “In my mind, I knew there were some areas where I wouldn’t feel welcome, and that I’d better be careful.”

Adjorlolo also forged a friendship with Dr. Gordon Orians and his wife, Betty. Like a surrogate mother, Betty helped young Adjorlolo become independent and settle into a new city. When a landlord refused to rent him his first in Seattle apartment because of his skin color, she stepped in.

“The previous tenant was Black and trashed the place, so he told Betty in private that he wasn’t going to rent to ‘them’ anymore,” Adjorlolo said. “She really told him a thing or two. Betty was the wrong person to mess with regarding issues of race.”

As a graduate student, Adjorlolo met Dr. John H. Jones, a Boeing engineer who taught Materials Science part-time. Jones invited Adjorlolo to be his teaching assistant. As the friendship blossomed, Jones encouraged him to apply for an engineering position at Boeing. In 1991, Adjorlolo joined Jones’ team at The Boeing Company. Adjorlolo also became Jones’ mentee.

Over the next three decades at Boeing, Adjorlolo achieved international recognition and emerged as a trusted subject matter expert and consultant specializing in corrosion prevention, composite finishes, films and adhesives for airplane design and manufacturing. He holds 16 patent disclosures, including seven granted, and has several publications to his name.

And now, he has one more accomplishment to add to the list. This month, Adjorlolo earned a 2021 Black Engineer of the Year Award (BEYA) in the category of Outstanding Technical Contribution in History.

Now in Product Development, Adjorlolo and his team are creating a road map to improve corrosion testing and better characterize environmentally compliant finishes when used with new and advanced alloys.

When he’s not discovering novel ways to improve airplane design and manufacturing, Adjorlolo gives back by helping others further their education. He developed and taught classes to more than a thousand Boeing engineers at multiple sites across the company, including in Russia. Adjorlolo also participates in several Boeing programs aimed at helping early career engineers network and develop their technical skills. Many of the materials sciences students he taught at the University of Washington are now Boeing engineers.

“There’s a long history of Black achievement that is unknown,” Adjorlolo said. “It’s important to bring some level of visibility about these achievements to younger generations. There are a lot of people out there, who look like them, making significant contributions to society.”

When mentoring engineers, he offers career advice and often shares his personal story to build trust. He encourages mentees to find areas where they can shine.

“My parents seldom explicitly told me what to do except to excel. They had so much lying around. My curiosity just took over,” he said.

When reflecting on his journey, with its many twists and turns, Adjorlolo says the biggest lesson is that there is so much we can’t control. Just like the popping of the 787 flight deck window, sometimes it’s best not to fight movement, but instead, encourage it.

“For the little things you can control, do something about it,” Adjorlolo said. “For everything else, learn to move on.”