Ron Hickland designs bowling balls at Ebonite International
This technology manager proves that math and science aren’t just desk work. His “cool job” takes him
around the world, and he’s doing what he loves
'When I was a freshman at Purdue (West Lafayette, IN), there were nine hundred of us in a lecture hall for a math class,” remembers Ron Hickland, Jr. “The professor told us that of those who get As in this class, three percent will go on to become engineers. Of those who get Bs, only one percent will become engineers. Less than half of one percent of those who get a C will become engineers.
“I got a C.”
But Hickland beat the odds, earning his BS in mechanical engineering in 2001. Today he’s manager of technology at Ebonite International (Hopkinsville, KY), a privately owned company that manufactures 60 percent of the world’s bowling balls.
His responsibilities include designing, testing and approving all the products for Ebonite’s four bowling ball brands: Ebonite, Columbia 300, Track and Hammer. “Each one has a brand manager,” he says, “and I work with them to understand their requirements. We build forty-five to fifty new products each year so that works out to about eleven or twelve models of ball per brand.
“The brand manager goes out into the field, gets information, and then comes back and says, ‘We need a product that does x.’ X may be just a little bit different from one of our current products or something unique and very different.
“There are two main components of a bowling ball,” Hickland explains, “the core, or the inside, and the coverstock or shell. The brand manager may say we can use the existing core with a new cover, or we might need a new core or both a new core and coverstock.
“I design all the interior core shapes of the ball, but I work with chemists in R&D to develop coverstock options to use. I’ll put several combinations of cores and coverstocks together, then go out into the field with my test team and evaluate the balls.
“If the product tests well against our control target, I bring it back for the brand managers to test. If everyone agrees that we hit the target, that’s it. If not, we get together and discuss what was right and what was wrong. Maybe we have to remake it, or maybe we just have to tweak aspects of it. Then we develop a launch plan for it.”
Eleven people report to Hickland including engineers, ball testers and the chemists who work on the coverstocks.
A unique and fortunate position
Hickland is a bowler himself and can see ball design from a consumer’s perspective. He works with marketing to develop ideas about how bowling balls should perform.
He appreciates his unique and fortunate position; his expertise has taken him around the globe to Canada, Europe, Mexico, Singapore, Korea, Japan, and across the United States. “I get to travel the world, talking about bowling, bowling balls and product performance,” he says enthusiastically. “Bowlers are different depending upon where you are in the world.
“I get to meet a lot of cool people. Recently, I spent time with NFL football player Terrell Owens, coaching him and getting him ready to bowl in a national amateur tournament.” Hickland has also worked with champion boxer “Sugar” Shane Mosley, NBA star Chris Paul, business mogul Gavin Maloof and hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz, who enlisted him to design customized bowling balls.
Born and raised near Fort Wayne, IN, Hickland says that his father is a “big-time bowler. I used to travel with him to tournaments. When I was fifteen, I met a guy who designs bowling balls and I thought, ‘I want to do this.’
“I worked in a pro shop so I drilled balls, saw how they’re sold, and understood their construction. In school, I was good at science but struggled with math. I started at Purdue a semester behind in math. I got a C in that class but I was determined to graduate in engineering.”
Helping himself succeed
“I knew I needed help,” he says, “so I created a study group called ‘MPG,’ the Math & Physics Group, that met three times a week. We started with eight or ten people, became six or seven, and finally became a core group of three. Ultimately, that’s how I got through college.
“That’s how I work now,” he continues. “I learned you don’t have to do it alone. I learned how to get people to elaborate on an idea and formulate a plan.”
A bowling program was one of his requirements when it came time to choose a college. “A good engineering program was the first requirement, but a good bowling program was the second. Purdue had the best of both worlds,” says Hickland.
“I also enrolled in a minority introduction to engineering program that was very helpful. It helped me understand the importance of leveraging relationships to get through engineering, because it’s not easy.”
Hickland did four summer internships at General Motors in Fort Wayne, IN. “We used to call it ‘Generous Motors,’ Hickland smiles. “They paid their interns really well. As a senior, I was a supervisor in the maintenance department and they work a lot of overtime, so I did too.
“I also spent two spring breaks working at national bowling tournaments. They were only a week each and I didn’t get paid, but I loved it. I met a lot of people, including the person who became my boss at Ebonite International.
“I hired on at Ebonite International in 2001 as a research engineer,” Hickland says. “I wanted to get into core design, and the core design guy at that time helped and mentored me. By 2002 I was designing all the cores. We bought the Hammer brand in 2003 and I was promoted to development engineering manager. Early in 2013, I moved into my current role.”
Achievements and aspirations
Hickland holds a U.S. patent for a bowling ball restoration product, Hook Again, and has two additional patents pending. He has also co-authored technical papers on the science of bowling and articles in Bowlers Journal and Bowling This Month magazines. He is a member of the National Society of Black Engineers.
Hickland’s passion is promoting STEM careers to young people. “I want to help people understand that they can do science, they can do math, and it’s not just sitting behind a desk crunching numbers all day.
“I go to conferences where I talk to young people. It’s fun to see their faces light up when they understand all that hard work can lead to something cool. Develop a plan, focus on the goal. That is how you succeed. When that clicks, it’s just awesome.”
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