Aeronautics or mechanical engineering? More than 30 years ago, Richard Cobben (50) was not sure. After the open day at TU Delft, he opted for mechanical engineering. ‘Aeronautics seemed so complex to me’, he recalls. He now manages 300 people at Fokker Aerostructures.
Name: Richard Cobben
Place of Residence: Compiègne/Naarden (‘I go on holiday every weekend’)
Marital status: married, three children
Studied: mechanical engineering
Association: no membership; regular visitor at Virgiel
He had not planned it this way in advance, because he started with pure mechanical engineering: structural analyses of train cars at Stork Alpha Engineering. That was until factory construction within Stork became more appealing to him. ‘A process design, a building, bringing disciplines together – those have always been driving forces for me.’
Cobben thus became a project engineer, first in the Netherlands and later in Thailand, where he designed and became a project manager for a pharmaceutical factory. As he describes it, the factory was a good combination of process industry and packaging lines under the same roof. This is when it truly began to become interesting for him, particularly after he completed his second Master’s degree: logistics and computer science at Montfort University.
A subsequent Stork post was in the petrochemical industry in Kuala Lumpur. ‘Building chemical factories in the middle of nowhere. You arrive with your suitcase and start with nothing. Fantastic. You’re dropped into a Muslim culture and immediately have an entirely different dynamic between Chinese, Muslims and Indians. Very multicultural.’
The post required Cobben to delve into the culture. ‘Thailand is Buddhist, with a somewhat timid culture, while the Muslim culture is more macho. You have to be careful with that, but a basic attitude of “respect” can go a long way. Listening is a good skill. I’m more analytical: listen first, and then speak. That is an advantage in such a situation.’
In 2001, aeronautics re-emerged in the picture: Stork had purchased the movables of Fokker, which had gone bankrupt in 1996, and was looking for programme managers. For one year, Cobben worked on the moving parts of an Airbus 300 wing, in order to become familiar with the aircraft profession. ‘Aeronautics and mechanical engineering are not that far apart; we took many courses together’, he recalls. He set up a major new programme for the Fokker Aerostructures subsidiary: the F-35 (Joint Strike Fighter). The focus of this project was primarily on the control surfaces of the wing and on doors that could open quickly without being detected by radar.
Cobben is currently responsible for research and development at Fokker Aerostructures. The division is familiar with the aircraft material Glare, which was developed at TU Delft. The subsidiary has become the market leader in thermoplastics, which are used to counteract material fatigue. Fokker is currently trying to apply the material in larger aircraft. Cobben now feels that it might have been easier if he had opted for aeronautics in the first place. ‘On the other hand, I now have the breadth and the connections between industries. I am fascinated by such breadth.’