Manufacturing: this growing field needs clever techies
Many manufacturing companies are operating in high-tech areas like energy and alternative energy, green technology, biomedical engineering and aerospace
Today's manufacturing engineers find their work exciting. "I absolutely love manufacturing!" says Chrysler manufacturing engineer Deirdre Simpson
By Claire Swedberg
The field of manufacturing engineering is sometimes perceived as less exciting, less glamorous and – let's face it – not as high-tech as many other technical fields. "That's a misconception we're working to change," says Bart Aslin, CEO of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) Education Foundation. He thinks that skewed perception may have kept some of the best and brightest engineering minds out of manufacturing entirely.
And that's a shame, because the field is growing right now. Many manufacturing companies are operating in very high-tech areas indeed, like energy and alternative energy, green technology, biomedical engineering and aerospace, and have a critical need for innovative engineers with creative minds.
Aslin admits that techies with the bulk of their experience in traditional areas like automotive, as well as those coming into the job force for the first time, may need additional training for jobs in modern manufacturing.
"We are preparing our future workforce for a reinvented economy," says Aslin. "We can't just follow the education template of the past forty years and expect our young people to succeed." He points out that as U.S. industries change and repetitive assembly jobs continue to move overseas, near- and long-term career opportunities will be in industries currently in a growth and development mode. "On the horizon, more focus is being placed on R&D; for micro and nano products," he notes.
The SME Education Foundation, www.smeef.org, offers advice on advanced manufacturing careers at www.careerme.org.
Deirdre Simpson of Chrysler: immersed in an exciting field
Today's manufacturing engineers are often immersed in exciting work. Last fall Chrysler manufacturing engineer Deirdre Simpson got to introduce President Barack Obama to an audience composed of most of the people who work in Chrysler's Kokomo, IN transmission plant, and to an international television audience at the same time. This was another proof to her of how rewarding a manufacturing career can be. "I absolutely love manufacturing!" she says.
Simpson didn't start out in auto-making. While working on her 1988 ME at Purdue University (Lafayette, IN) Simpson did an internship at pharmaceutical manufacturer Eli Lilly and Co (Indianapolis, IN). She continued there for seven years, assisting in facilities design engineering.
In 1996 Chrysler approached her to see if she had any interest in a career in manufacturing. All her experience was in medical and pharma, but she looked into the offer and realized that manufacturing could be a challenging field. She made the leap and is happy she did. "If we allow our souls to guide us that's where we find that true satisfaction," Simpson says.
She came in as the first woman and first African American manufacturing maintenance supervisor at the Kokomo plant, responsible for the condition of its manufacturing lines. She oversaw the work of a manufacturing staff machining a variety of components that go into the assembly of vehicles, with a workforce that included ten to twelve trades.
In 1998 Simpson was promoted to maintenance area manager, overseeing the New Castle, IN machining and forging plant and responsible for manufacturing maintenance at that facility as well the one in Kokomo. "This is the kind of work you either love or hate," she says. "It's definitely a fast-paced field coupled with technical requirements for engineering skills, and you have to understand the production processes."
As manager she has to look not only at the problem at hand but the impact the problem has on the business as a whole. "That usually means you have to get a piece of equipment working again as fast as possible." She admits she may be a bit of an adrenaline junkie.
In 2007 Simpson went from area manager over steel machining to area manager over aluminum machining. In 2009 she became manufacturing manager for the whole plant. "It's a lot like being business leader," she explains, "but with responsibility for all operations in the whole plant." She oversees operations, assembly, machining and maintenance. Under her leadership the plant has returned to full production, recovering from a loss of more than fifty percent production a couple of years ago.
Simpson says the secret to succeeding in manufacturing as a woman is simple: "You have to be strong, you have to be thick-skinned, you have to be tough and learn to take it and go with it. Because we're female we have to be quicker and tougher!" she says. And although she didn't say it, you clearly have to be very good at what you do.
Johanna Phillips is a development engineer at GE Healthcare
GE Healthcare development engineer Johanna Phillips earned a BS in chemistry at Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN) in 2006, but discovered engineering doing co-ops at GE Plastics (Evansville, IN).
There she got out of the lab environment and found that she liked manufacturing work. "I wanted to learn the practical applications of engineering," she says. "I wanted to experience manufacturing."
In three co-ops in manufacturing at the chemical plant she completed rotations focusing on areas like yield, product quality and safety. "I was very much drawn to interfacing with operations as well as figuring out customer needs and adjusting the manufacturing process accordingly," she says.
On graduation Phillips became a member of GE's Operations Manager Leadership Program, which gave her two years of rotations through several facilities and multiple departments. She did four rotations in all, working in Ottawa, IL and Selkirk, NY.
It was a great experience. "I learned some core principles that I use now, like troubleshooting, understanding what's driving costs, reducing errors and increasing safety. I also learned an appreciation for detail."
In 2008 Phillips became a manufacturing process engineer at GE Healthcare. "It was a fast-paced, exciting position, exactly what I wanted," she says. She worked on X-ray tubes for CT systems, supporting final assembly and testing, focusing on safety and ergonomics. The tubes, she explains, weigh more than 200 pounds, so it was important to minimize the need for manipulation by people on the manufacturing floor.
Last year she was promoted to development engineer, working on the reliability of X-ray tubes in the 3,500 GE systems in use by customers. Her responsibilities go beyond the Milwaukee-area site where she's based. "I try to keep the pulse of what's happening with each installation," she says. Rather than trying to visit multiple sites herself, she provides remote support to GE's field engineers.
Phillips also helps minimize defects and maximize quality at a GE Healthcare sister company that manufactures the X-ray systems. She works with Six Sigma methods and loves the work. Although it's a predominantly male environment, "We all have respect for each other."
ME Calvin Ballance is a tech leader at Cummins
Cummins organizational/technical leader Calvin Ballance got involved in manufacturing engineering during summer internships at Digital Equipment and General Motors, two companies that had provided scholarships to North Carolina A&T; State University (Greensboro, NC) for him.
Automotive manufacturing won out, and he went to work for GM when he graduated in 1983. As a supervisor and process engineer he supervised jig and fixture builders in construction, maintenance and repair of tooling and equipment, and got to design and recommend revisions. "I was responsible for inventory control, employee safety and performance," he says.
He liked the job, but soon started planning to move up. "I wanted to keep my technical focus but I liked being a leader, and I set an early goal to become a plant manager."
In 1990 he moved to a job as manufacturing engineer at Consolidated Diesel Co (Whitakers, NC). He did process and budget planning and cost-reduction work as well as hands-on supervision of maintenance technicians in troubleshooting, repair and installation of tools and equipment. He also mentored engineering interns and co-op students.
He completed an MS in general admin at Central Michigan University in 1999. "I felt those courses would help me succeed. I was interested in team-based work, and team building became my expertise."
In 2000 he was promoted to manager of methods engineering and sent to a Six Sigma black belt program to learn to lead and coordinate major projects. Then he moved up to maintenance and controls engineering manager at Consolidated Diesel, heading up all maintenance-related functions in engine component machining and engine assembly. He also began building and training teams.
In 2009 Ballance joined diesel manufacturer Cummins (Columbus, IN) to oversee team-based projects as technical leader. Last year he moved into a business manager role, overseeing the entire business, from incoming materials to outgoing products that end up in Europe, Asia and Mexico. Ten managers report to him, overseeing 175 people.
Ballance says leadership and team- building skills have been his greatest assets. "I set a strategic direction by sharing an inspired vision," he adds, "and make a point of involving others in the decision-making process.
Victoria Wilson: manufacturing engineer and more at Ford
Victoria Wilson is a manufacturing engineer in the vehicle operations final assembly engineering department at Ford Motor Co (Dearborn, MI). She graduated from Lawrence Technological University (Southfield, MI) in 2005 with an associates degree in manufacturing engineering technology. In 2008 she received a BS in manufacturing engineering technology from Wayne State University (Detroit, MI).
"It's always been my plan to become a manufacturing engineer," she says. "And since I'm from Detroit I naturally pictured myself in the automotive industry."
While in school she worked at the Focus: Hope Center for Advanced Technologies, a nonprofit organization that partnered with Wayne State and Lawrence Tech to give students real-world manufacturing experience.
From 2005 to 2006 she was a machine operator, working on engine mounts for Chrysler and water pumps for the GM Northstar, doing troubleshooting for the machines and tooling, and QA on the parts she produced.
In 2006 Wilson took a new job as a production engineer at the Department of Defense (DOD) Mobile Parts Hospital (MPH), an advanced machining center that was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The MPH could quickly repair and return soldiers' equipment without leaving the field. On this assignment Wilson investigated production problems, worked with a team to develop solutions, implemented the solutions and added error-proofing to prevent recurrence. She also ensured compliance with DOD methods and quality standards.
In the summer of 2007 Wilson interned at Ford, where she worked in advanced manufacturing engineering on the 2008 MKS. She returned to the Focus: Hope advanced technology center, working in R&D; until 2009 when she moved into a fulltime position at Ford. She was part of the launch of the 2011 Ford Focus at the newly remodeled Michigan Assembly Plant.
Today she works for the vehicle operations final assembly team, where she's a manufacturing engineer on the instrument panel. She's also involved in introducing the kitting process to North America. "I am really excited to be a part of that," she says.
Wilson has also worked with the plant vehicle team at Ford's Wayne assembly plant and with the material planning and logistics team preparing the Michigan facility for the new Focus. She even took part in new model planning for the Focus. "These have all been exciting and challenging positions," she says.
But, "The most challenging thing has been the unfortunate timing of the start of my career," she says. "I graduated during a recession and clearly it was not the easiest time to seek employment. But Ford remembered me as an intern and brought me onto the 'One Ford' team."
Wilson enjoys working on vehicles from concept to production, and she loves being part of the evolution of those vehicles. Attitude is an important component to a successful career in manufacturing, she says.
"I always try to have a great attitude. If you are approachable, smiling and ready to work people enjoy having you around. They are willing to share their knowledge and experiences, and that is how you learn.
"I believe that my good attitude and willingness to jump in to get the job done have gotten me here, and I hope will take me farther in my career!"
Martha Castellon-Vogel: principal engineer at International Paper
Martha Castellon-Vogel earned her BSChE at the University of Honduras in 1984 and an MSChE at Tulane University (New Orleans, LA) in 1987. No matter what her career would be, she says, "My goal was to excel by doing my best."
She realized that a PhD would give her the choice of an industrial, research-oriented or academic career, so she stayed at Tulane and completed her PhD in ChE in 1990.
She worked for International Paper in the summer of 1989, on a project to improve manufacturing processes. In 1990 she joined the company full time as research assistant in the firm's Tuxedo Park, NY branch. Then she went to work on a project to improve the bleaching process at a mill in Pennsylvania.
"I was a good researcher," she says, and within the year she proposed changes to the bleaching process that saved the company millions of dollars. She was transferred to a similar project in Colombia, where she worked with the bleaching and pulp quality sector to provide more millions in savings. She became an expert on pulping and bleaching non-wood fibers.
In 1992 she came back to the U.S. as a research scientist in the company's Erling Riis Research Lab (Mobile, AL). The next year she moved up to senior research scientist, and in 1995 she became technical group leader at the Riverdale, AL site. She was in charge of tech support for the pulp mill and the mill's de-inking plant, working to optimize cost and quality of both materials and product.
In 1997 Castellon-Vogel became senior pulp coordinator, providing many company mills with support in pulp additives, deposit control, pulp quality and bleaching. In fact, her expertise was in demand at IP sites around the world, and she traveled internationally.
In 2002 she moved up to principal engineer at Loveland, OH, responsible for bleaching and pulp quality and implementing processes to cut cost and improve quality. That year she initiated a bleaching conference for all the company's pulp-mill managers around the world. She's become the company expert on bleaching, and has written several guides to the processes involved.
Castellon-Vogel has always been a self-starter with a passion for research. "There are plenty of opportunities for reading, talking to peers, learning from mentors," she says.
"You have to be able to communicate with everyone from manager to operators, and because I can't be in every mill all the time I have to be able to reach out to the people who are there."
DIVERSITY-MINDED COMPANIES LOOKING FOR MANUFACTURING ENGINEERS
Check websites for current openings.
|Company and location
|Acushnet Co (Fairhaven, MA)
|Archer Daniels Midland Co (Decatur, IL)
|Chrysler Group (Auburn Hills, MI)
|Cummins (Columbus, IN)
|Engines and fuel systems
|Ford Motor Co (Dearborn, MI)
|GE Healthcare (Waukesha, WI)
|Medical technologies and services
|International Paper (Memphis, TN)
|Pulp and paper
|Nissan (Nashville, TN)
|Sikorksy Aircraft Corp (Stratford, CT)
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