Manufacturing technology: engineering from the shop floor to the top floor
“If you spend more time while a concept is still on paper, you save a lot of headaches and money at the launch.” – Raj Kawlra, Chrysler Group LLC
Manufacturing tech opportunities exist at all stages, from conceptual, even futuristic, to production and beyond. Diverse engineers are thriving in many of them
By Dan Margherita
Senior Contributing Editor
'Advanced manufacturing technology jobs are rapidly returning to the U.S.,” notes Bart Aslin, CEO of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME, Dearborn, MI). “And as advanced manufacturing picks up again, employers are scrambling to find skilled laborers.”
Although the national unemployment rate remains near 8 percent, Aslin notes that “there are an estimated 600,000 job openings at U.S.-based manufacturing companies.”
To satisfy this need, Aslin explains, companies are now recruiting students from community colleges, and are working with high schools to develop the skills manufacturers need. “We know of high schools and community colleges that give students the opportunity to work toward an associates degree or a certification while they finish their high school work,” Aslin says. “We’re seeing a transformational shift in how we develop our workforce.
“Companies are in desperate need of skilled labor to fill a variety of openings,” he notes. In 2011, SME Education Foundation launched Partnership Response in Manufacturing Education (PRIME), which brings industry and organization partners into the classroom to make relevant connections between the curriculum and the real world. Companies also provide mentoring and internships. “It’s a comprehensive community-based approach to advanced manufacturing education,” Aslin says.
“Companies that have worked with us to support PRIME schools include Alcoa, Boeing, Emerson, Ford and Honda,” says Aslin, “and the list is growing.
“Studies show that the U.S. has fallen behind in science and math,” he continues. “Students need a solid STEM education for advanced manufacturing and other jobs in the global economy, and in high schools we now see career and tech teachers working alongside math and science teachers.”
Companies involved in manufacturing often recruit for a wide range of technical positions. BAE Systems is one of them, offering “innovative work in a collaborative environment,” according to vice president of talent acquisition Linda Weiss.
“We have IT opportunities for experienced professionals in computer software engineering, electrical engineering, systems analytics, intelligence, and cybersecurity,” Weiss says. “Our manufacturing and production technology needs range from floor support engineering to advanced technologies such as optical engineering, power analog, and weapons and combat systems design.”
Diverse manufacturing engineers are working across the spectrum of positions and companies. Here are some of their stories.
Audley Brown directs diesel calibration at General Motors
Audley Brown has worked at General Motors (Detroit, MI) since he was in high school. This past January, he was named General Motors’ director of North American diesel calibration.
“My family came to the United States from Jamaica when I was two years old, so my dad could work in the auto industry,” he explains. “I grew up in Detroit and he worked on the assembly line at Ford.
“I’ve always loved technology and it was natural that I would be involved in the auto industry,” he continues. “I went to school year-round and in my senior year of high school, I took half a course load so that I could work at GM as a co-op. I was a lab technician when I was seventeen years old.”
GM recommended that he attend the General Motors Institute (GMI, now Kettering University, Flint, MI), and he did, graduating in 1991 with a BS in mechanical engineering. “I was focused and knew where I was going,” he remembers. “I attended graduate school at night and earned an MS in mechanical engineering from Wayne State University (Detroit, MI) in 1994.”
While at Kettering, Brown did a co-op in GM’s racing section focusing on motor sports. “I was testing racing engines. It was awesome, the best co-op experience anyone could have,” he recalls. “I wrote my undergraduate thesis on racing engine technology.”
After graduation, he spent his first year in production engineering before returning to motor sports. While his heart was with the race cars, he appreciated his time in production engineering. “I was doing something I hadn’t done before, getting deep into engine control system design and writing software. I like change, and every two to four years here I’ve done something different.
“Early on, I moved between production engineering and motor sports, working in engine control systems and engine hardware systems,” Brown says.
In 2000, he moved into control systems, responsible for getting the whole system to production. “At this point, I had to apply everything I knew. I had to be knowledgeable about how the engine and the algorithms worked. I’m a mechanical engineer, but I also had to be aware of the electronics.”
Next Brown became manager of a new software testing team. “It was a great opportunity to see the broader picture including risk management, company policy, managing customer expectations and now, managing people.” Although it was Brown’s first time as a manager, he says it was a soft transition. “I love being around people and I already knew a lot of them.”
A constant flow of new career challenges
In 2003, Brown was sent to China for two years to manage GM’s powertrain calibration group. “It was really hard and really challenging,” he remembers, “but it definitely made me a stronger engineer.”
When he returned to the U.S., he was promoted to director of powertrain control systems integration and applications, his first executive position. “I had a hundred people reporting to me and was proud knowing that I could do every job they did. But GM didn’t necessarily see that as challenging for me. They said I had to grow, so I moved into a new assignment in advanced engineering in 2007.”
Brown worked on control systems and electronics focusing on future technologies. “It was more of a ‘what if?’ environment. We looked at trends, both foreign and domestic, and thought about what we could do with them. For example, driverless vehicles are being presented now, but we were working on them years ago.”
In 2009, he became responsible for all of GM’s North American racing engines, and global engine design. Brown assumed his current responsibilities in January, overseeing all the North American diesel engines on the road. “Now I’m more hands-on. I’m in the vehicles more. My office is right outside our garage. I get to wear my lab coat at work again.”
Brown is a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE, Warrendale, PA). At GM, he is a member of the African Ancestry Network, where he mentors employees in their career development.
“I still have another twenty years,” Brown says enthusiastically. “I love cars. Cars are the most complicated consumer devices we have. The closer I am to them, the better I feel. There is a lot more to explore.”
Engineer James Settles: Ford Motor Company is my “dream employer”
James Settles III is a fourth-generation Ford Motor Company (Dearborn, MI) employee, following a family tradition that started with his great-grandfather, then grandfather and father. Settles is now a process coach in a transmission machining area at Ford’s Van Dyke transmission plant in Sterling Heights, MI. His previous assignment was in manufacturing engineering for the Powertrain manufacturing engineering controls team.
“I’m in a rotation program that my manager set up to give me more leadership and manufacturing experience,” he explains. As a manufacturing engineer, Settles participated in the launch of a new flexible assembly line at the Van Dyke plant, which allows the plant to build a hybrid transmission and a six-speed transmission on the same assembly line.
“As a process coach, I make sure that the operators for our team have everything they need to do their jobs. Our number one concern is safety, and the second is that operators produce quality parts at a current job-per-hour rate.”
Settles was born in Detroit. “I wanted to be an engineer because I knew you had a good chance of getting a good job in the automotive industry after college. In high school, I spent a summer at Michigan Technological University (Houghton, MI),” Settles says. “They had a summer program where minority kids could get a feel for engineering and how it is in college.”
He continues, “I thought about chemical engineering, but I got a full scholarship to Tennessee State University (Nashville, TN) and they didn’t have that program. This was during the Internet boom, and I realized that computers were the future so I eventually moved to electrical engineering.” Settles received his BSEE in 2004.
During college, he interned at General Motors and at Grupo Antolin (Auburn Hills, MI). Grupo Antolin was a tier 1 supplier of SUV headliners to Ford’s Michigan truck plant at the time. “The part owner of Grupo Antolin also owned an automotive plant that was a supplier to Johnson Controls,” explains Settles. “He passed my resume to someone at Johnson Controls and they hired me as a software test engineer testing computer devices and instrument panel clusters for Chrysler and GM vehicles.”
Making the rounds of the auto industry
Wanting to be closer to his family, in 2006 Settles moved to Mercedes Benz Technology (Troy, MI) as hardware-in-the-loop software test engineer. He designed, implemented and maintained automated test scripts to verify functionality and diagnostics for the powertrain software used in the first hybrid electric vehicle manufactured by DaimlerChrysler.
In 2007, he moved to General Motors and spent two years as a hybrid system safety engineer, responsible for the design and analysis of safety controls for the powertrain controls of the Extended Range Electric Vehicle program.
He joined Ford in 2012. “I’m happier now than I have ever been in my career,” Settles beams.
He is a member of Ford’s African Ancestry Network.
“For the next six months, I’ll be in this process coach role,” he says. “I want to go to graduate school for my MBA, and I hope one day I’ll move into a leadership role in the manufacturing organization.”
Melissa Grant leads flagship business jet creation at Gulfstream
At Gulfstream Aerospace (Savannah, GA), Melissa Grant is senior operations manager for the flagship Gulfstream G650 program.
“It is our top-of-the-line business jet,” Grant explains. “I lead the organization that manufactures the jet, and the people who build it. This includes people on the shop floor shooting rivets and turning wrenches, and the manufacturing and industrial engineers who support them. We take the airplane from engineering design all the way to flight.”
Approximately 300 people are involved, and twelve managers report directly to Grant. She participates in strategy meetings, walks the floor helping problem-solve, and directs day-to-day operations. “I also mentor the people who work for me,” she adds.
Originally from upstate New York, Grant spent her early years in South Carolina. Her career aspirations were to be an architect or work for NASA. “I have a fundamental love of building things,” she says. “I was a girl who played with Legos instead of Barbies. My parents encouraged me, and I also received encouragement at school, even though the focus on STEM initiatives wasn’t what it is today.”
Grant graduated from Clemson University (Clemson, SC) in 1998 with a BS in electrical engineering. She did a co-op as a manufacturing engineer at Champion Aviation Products (Liberty, SC), a subsidiary of Cooper Industries (Lexington, SC).
After graduation, she joined Cooper Industries’ manufacturing management program, a two-year rotational program. Her first year was spent at Champion, and the second year at Cooper Power Tools, where she did two turns in operations management. Then she joined Cooper’s operations management supervising the assembly of industrial power tools. “It was very hands-on, mostly troubleshooting and ensuring product quality.”
Eventually Grant became curious about what else was out there. “The facility that I was in was fairly small, and I was looking to grow with a company that had greater opportunities to do the things I was interested in.
“A recruiter told me about Gulfstream. I decided that the finest business jet in the world is more exciting to me than power tools, so here I am,” she smiles, adding, “and it’s awfully darn close to NASA!”
Moving up through the ranks
She joined Gulfstream in 2004 as a manufacturing engineer doing process improvement. “I ran projects that improved the build process for our jet interiors: how to do it better, faster and smarter.”
After a year, she took over as manager of the upholstery and trim shop. In 2009, she was promoted to integrated production team manager, responsible for all manufacturing engineers working on the G650, Gulfstream’s largest and fastest aircraft. In 2011, Grant became senior operations manager, supporting the G650 technicians and managers as well.
She is a member of the Society of Women Engineers (Chicago, IL) and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (Detroit, MI). She’s a mentor in Gulfstream’s management development program and is on the diversity and inclusion council.
She is also co-chair of the Savannah Technical College aviation advisory committee. The technical college works with Gulfstream to involve the local population in aviation careers.
“I want to be a leader and help the company with whatever is next,” Grant says. “The beauty of working at Gulfstream is in the opportunities available. What you see today may not be what you move into tomorrow.”
Pam Sleet streamlines components for value and efficiency at Ingersoll Rand
When Pam Sleet attended high school in Anderson, IN, engineering “wasn’t on the radar,” she says. Today, Sleet is director of component engineering at global diversified industrial company Ingersoll Rand (Davidson, NC).
“It’s a new function we’re forming,” she explains. “At the enterprise level, we want to provide support services to our global procurement organization. We’re moving to a new operating model. This organization has reorganized and we have to find a more efficient way to interact with them.
“For example, we purchase millions of dollars of motors and use them in many of our products,” Sleet explains. “Depending upon your location or the type of business you’re in, you may specify one type of motor or another. In this and other areas, we’re trying to drive some commonality and standardization so that we can consolidate our purchases, reduce inventory and maximize the value of our purchased parts.”
Her path to engineering
During high school, she worked in a rotational program at General Motors, starting as a lab technician doing qualification and analysis testing. “An advisor there saw that I had an aptitude for math and problem solving,” she recalls. “He talked to me about engineering. I learned that I could stay with GM if I enrolled in the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University, Flint, MI). I was interested in staying employed so I got into engineering.”
Sleet went on to Purdue University where she received a 1979 BS in mechanical engineering. She landed a job with global silicone supplier Dow Corning Corporation in Midland, MI doing facilities design. She moved up to maintenance engineering and ultimately program manager for Dow Corning’s plant facilities.
Next she worked for H.B. Fuller Company (Saint Paul, MN), a global industrial adhesives manufacturer, starting as a program manager and moving into operations. In 2004, she joined the climate solutions business at Ingersoll Rand as a manager of VAVE (value analysis/value engineering).
Sleet admits that what she does today is more managerial and less hands-on. “Like most engineers, I had to decide what track I wanted to follow. On a technical track you can become an expert in a specific area. I started out in design but found I was more attracted to the managerial track.”
At Ingersoll Rand, Sleet is a member of the Women’s Network and the Black Employee Network. She is also a member of SAVE International (Dayton, OH), a value engineering society, and ASME (founded as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, New York, NY).
She is focused on the success of the company’s new model for component engineering. “I really enjoy breaking new ground,” she says enthusiastically. “We want to get this established and make sure it is successful.”
Engineering manager Joshua Mason keeps things moving at Newport News Shipbuilding
“Experience is a great teacher,” believes Joshua Mason. “You learn a lot about your product by working on it.”
Mason is an engineering manager 2 in the nuclear propulsion division of Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS, Newport News, VA), a builder of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and submarines, and a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII).
“My group is called the radiological technology group (RTG),” he explains. “RTG is responsible for the design and manufacturing of nuclear special tooling such as jigs, fixtures, wrenches, lapping tools, etc, and for research, development, and integration of new technology and processes.”
With eight direct reports, Mason scrupulously adheres to his to-do list, keeping the work moving, and spends a lot of time doing what he calls “checking the waterfront.” As he checks on each ongoing project, “I’ll ask for a status report on a project and will receive a technical work document saying that it’s going well, or that changes are necessary.”
He has been employed at NNS since June 2005, starting as an engineer nuclear 1, an entry-level position. He spent two years in primary systems before moving to RTG in 2007. One of his most notable accomplishments was successfully completing a first-of-a-kind complex weld repair on a vital nuclear system component, a repair project that took more than a year. His success played a role in his being selected as Modern Day Technology award winner at the 2012 Black Engineer of the Year conference.
Inspired by a “tinkering knack” and a good teacher
Born in Murfreesboro, NC, Mason admits to always having the “tinkering knack.” He says his high school physics teacher influenced his career path. “He was an electrical engineer who decided that he wanted to teach younger generations about math and science and encourage them in those career paths,” Mason remembers.
“During my senior year in high school, I was a part of the Northampton County Electric Automotive Team that he sponsored. I learned engineering theory and had the opportunity to apply it in a shop environment.”
He graduated from North Carolina A&T State University (Greensboro, NC) in 2005 with a BS in mechanical engineering.
“I interned at the shipyard in 2002 and 2003. I learned CAD, reviewed drawings, and did technical writing. Before I graduated, they offered me a job,” he says.
“The shipyard aggressively pursues interns for the company. I’m a product of that myself,” says Jon Calma, director of nuclear propulsion in overhaul engineering for NNS. “It is a very competitive program.”
Mason hopes to go back to school to earn his graduate degree and needs to decide whether it will be on the technical or business side. “I see a need for the technical, maybe a masters in nuclear engineering, but I also like the management side so it might be an MBA,” he muses.
Lori McGrath leads manufacturing progress at GE Aviation
“My team is made up of technical experts,” explains Lori McGrath. McGrath is the composites manufacturing process engineering manager at GE Aviation (Cincinnati, OH). “We are a conduit to the business needs of the company, matching those with where we want to go technically. We use lean manufacturing methods, and support the supply chain through standardization with speed, efficiency and shared expertise.”
McGrath joined the company in 2005 as a composite materials development engineer and quickly assumed the additional role of composite lab technician team leader.
She was born and raised in northern Kentucky, just south of Cincinnati, OH. “I excelled in math and science, and a high school counselor recommended that I consider engineering.”
At the University of Dayton (Dayton, OH), she majored in chemical engineering and graduated in 1998 with a BS degree. “Chemical engineering had the highest concentration of women,” she says. “Our graduating class was about fifty-fifty men and women. The female population went down in the math and physics classes.” She went back to Dayton to earn a MS in materials engineering in 2008.
McGrath describes herself as a person who likes to see the fruits of her labor. “By my undergraduate junior year, I was focusing on an applied engineering job rather than conceptual design where you’re sitting behind a desk all day. I already had intern experience with both Delphi and GM in the chemical management group.
“At the end of my GM internship, I was in their state-of-the-art paint shop with robotic arms doing painting and welding. It was my first exposure to what a manufacturing engineer would do: take a process and make it better.”
After graduation she took a position at Maverick Corporation (Blue Ash, OH), a small aerospace materials supplier. “I was responsible for high-temperature polymer research and manufacturing, as well as environmental, health, and safety,” McGrath says.
“Since we were so small, I did everything from research to writing proposals and actually shipping product. Maverick got a lot of SBIR (small business integrative research) contracts. GE was a customer, along with Boeing and a lot of government research labs like Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and NASA.”
A new opportunity in composites
In 2004 McGrath joined GE Aviation as a contractor in the materials and process engineering department, working in the composites lab. “I came into an engineering department that was development-based, working on new materials and manufacturing processes.
“The group I manage now supports everything that’s in production. The composites are out there, and we need to have manufacturing processes to make them into quality parts efficiently and economically,” she says. Eight manufacturing engineers report to her directly.
“There aren’t a lot of applications that take composites to the level that we do,” McGrath believes. “We’re improving the processes all the time. We provide central support to internal GE Aviation shops as well as critical suppliers.”
Since composites are relatively new in jet engines, there is still a lot of metal in most engines. McGrath’s group works with other teams to substitute composite components where practical to realize weight savings and other benefits.
McGrath belongs to the GE Women’s Network and is a co-leader of its Women in Technology subgroup. Outside GE, she belongs to the Society for the Advancement of Materials & Process Engineers (Covina, CA).
ELDP3 Shaneaka Robinson aspires to program management at BAE Systems
Shaneaka Robinson entered Temple University (Philadelphia, PA) without a clear career path. But after a co-op at an engineering consulting firm, she returned “a completely different person,” committed to electrical engineering, and graduated with honors in 2008.
She is an ELDP3, part of the engineering leadership development program (ELDP) at BAE Systems, Inc (Arlington, VA). She works at the company’s Austin, TX location.
Robinson was born in Somerset, NJ and raised by a single parent. She remembers her dad helped her with her homework and paid her for good grades. “I got so much for an ‘A,’ so much for a ‘B,’ and so forth,” she remembers. “I liked making money so I started doing really well in school!”
She excelled at math and science in high school. She enrolled in a seven-week pre-college course at Brown University to learn what college was all about. When she came back, Robinson joined an organization called RIMES (Raritan’s Introduction of Minorities to Engineering and Sciences). “This is cool,” she thought, but she still wasn’t convinced about engineering.
Despite her ambivalence, Robinson enrolled at Temple’s school of engineering. “I decided to sign up for the co-op program because I would get to take a year off to work at an engineering company and see what it was like.”
“Life-changing” co-op seals the deal
“I went to work for a consulting firm in New Jersey called Remington & Vernick Engineers,” she says. The experience was life-changing. “I decided that I definitely wanted to get an education, and I definitely wanted to be an engineer. I was a changed person.”
After returning from Remington & Vernick, Robinson was an Inroads co-op and intern at Lockheed Martin in Mitchell Field, NY.
She met representatives from BAE Systems at a career fair. “BAE Systems was a whole new world and I was really excited about it. I liked the opportunity to work on new and innovative things,” she says.
She started at BAE Systems in the hardware engineering group doing field programmable gate array programming and then lab testing. She soon learned about BAE Systems’ ELDP. “Just the idea of being able to move around, do different things and play different roles really interested me,” she says.
“We have two main areas here, engineering and operations. I worked in engineering and loved it, but there is this unknown world of operations that no one on the engineering side talks about,” she says with a smile. “I really wanted to know more about it.”
She networked with the ELDP manager, who helped Robinson find her current opportunity in Austin. Besides hardware engineering, she’s worked in systems engineering, reliability engineering, and now manufacturing.
“Right now, I’m working on assessing how much capacity our machines on the floor can handle. I focus on cost, quality, and delivery to the customer,” Robinson says.
Robinson is a member of the National Society of Black Engineers (Alexandria, VA). In May 2012 she earned an MS in computer engineering from the Stevens Institute of Technology (Hoboken, NJ).
She’d like to move into program management and has been offered the opportunity to become an assistant program manager in another area of BAE Systems. “That’s what’s next for me,” she believes.
L-3 industrial engineer Keela Cottrell focuses on process monitoring and improvement
Keela Cottrell is an industrial engineer 2B with L-3 Communications (New York, NY). She works at its Mission Integration business in Greenville,
TX, doing process monitoring and process improvement.
“My team is working to completely revamp our 36,000-square-foot electrical shop,” she says. “First, we have to talk to the supervisors and personnel to develop an understanding of the daily operations. These are the people this project directly affects.
“Next, we observe and document the process in detail, presenting the snapshot of the current performance of the shop. Then, we establish what equipment and practices we can implement to reach our goals.
“Finally, implementation includes everything from justifying cost of equipment to deciding where the new walls should be and what color they should be,” she says.
Cottrell works on a team of five engineers with a rotating leadership. “For example,” she offers, “one of us is currently responsible for coordinating all the facility improvements for the electrical shop. I am assigned to assist him, with the understanding that after this has been completed, I will own the next similar project and will have full responsibility. So in our interactions, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student.”
Cottrell was born in Las Vegas, NV into a military family that eventually settled in Montgomery, AL. “I have always enjoyed being part of a team and making things better,” she says. “My early aspirations were to establish my own company and to have my brother and my younger cousins as my employees, but later I realized what a headache that would be!”
She attended Auburn University (Auburn, AL) and received her BS in industrial and systems engineering in 2010. What drew her to engineering? “Two words: problem solving. I have always been interested in fixing things. Being an industrial and systems engineer allows me to be right in the thick of things, and I love it.”
Her first job after graduation was as a wireline engineer for Schlumberger Technology Corporation (Victoria, TX). “Wireline engineers collect data that tells the client if there is oil in the well,” she explains. “I was in charge of the maintenance and work readiness of a wireline cell.”
She joined L-3 in April 2012. “I really wanted to pursue a career as an industrial engineer in the aerospace industry,” Cottrell explains. “I saw joining the team here at L-3 as an opportunity to continue to grow.”
Cottrell sees her future as a blend of technical and business opportunities. “The next step in my career is an MBA,” Cottrell says. “From there I hope to sharpen my technical, problem-solving and communication skills. Eventually, I hope to establish my own consulting firm to solve my clients’ unique issues creatively and effectively!”
Raj Kawlra leads critical dimensional and quality planning at Chrysler
Raj Kawlra’s position as director of dimensional management is a new one for Chrysler Group LLC (Auburn Hills, MI). “While the product is still on paper, in the design phase, my team identifies critical product and process characteristics that affect the fit, finish and performance of the vehicles: from good door fits to ensuring that the car goes straight down the middle of the road.
“During the next phase of prototype building, my team leads the root cause analysis of dimensional problems. At Chrysler we have implemented state-of-the-art metrology centers that let us find problems during the development phase and save time, resources and money,” he explains. ”We address any fit-and-finish issues before we start building our first production vehicle.
“Finally, my team is responsible for day-to-day variation reduction in the plants. Variations are manufacturing’s number one enemy! We also ensure that we sustain our quality gains throughout the product lifecycle.
“If things don’t work out, there’s only one person to go after,” he says wryly.
About 170 engineers work in this area, predominantly mechanical and industrial engineers, but also some with business or art degrees. “We’re a very diverse club,” Kawlra smiles.
“Right now, we have three major launches going on: Viper, a high-end sports car, ProMaster, a commercial van in partnership with Fiat, and a C-segment SUV coming this summer.”
Kawlra spent sixteen years at the General Motors Tech Center before joining Chrysler in 2001. He also spent four years at Speedrack Inc (Quincy, IL), a supplier of manufacturing storage racks.
“I’ve worked on the plant floor, in advanced manufacturing engineering, and in pure vehicle manufacturing research. I’ve seen pretty much all aspects of the automotive industry,” he says.
Kawlra is from India, where he grew up in a family of engineers. “My dad was a mechanical engineer and retired as CEO of a major construction company. From childhood, I saw mechanical engineering as an exciting field.”
Kawlra received his BS in mechanical engineering in 1979 from the Indian Institute of Technology. After that, he came to the United States where he received a 1980 MS in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin (Madison, WI) and a 1981 MS in industrial engineering from the University of Illinois (Urbana, IL). In 1994 he earned a PhD in industrial and operations engineering from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI).
Kickoff to an exemplary and rewarding career
He started his career on the manufacturing floor at Speedrack, then landed at General Motors in 1985. “I was responsible for designing and debugging GM’s first flexible, high-tech connecting rod machining line with forty new technologies. It was a lights-out pilot manufacturing line designed to demonstrate new robotics vision technology. There were no production operators running the equipment.”
At GM, Kawlra worked in a variety of manufacturing and product development areas, and was part of a team that set up GM North America’s first lean manufacturing plant. The plant won the JD Power award for excellence in its first year of launch.
“My father used to say, ‘Treat work like play and play all day,’” remembers Kawlra. “I was enjoying my job at GM and not looking to move, but the Monday after the mass layoffs at Chrysler in 2001, two recruiters called me about executive positions opening there. My wife flipped when I told her about it that evening, but it was an exciting opportunity to develop and implement a Black Belt program in the company’s ten powertrain plants. I thought it would be fun and I came over. I have no regrets.”
The Black Belt program resulted in over $100 million cost savings in the first three years of implementation. In 2004, he led teams responsible for manufacturing quality planning and launch support for new vehicle programs. Immediately before assuming his current responsibilities, he was director of manufacturing quality, responsible for day-to-day assembly plant quality activities at all ten assembly plants.
Kawlra is part of an advisory board at the University of Wisconsin and has served on industry advisory boards at MIT and Lawrence Technological University. He’s also served on an oversight committee for a Department of Defense project.
“I don’t worry about tomorrow,” he says. “I enjoy every moment of my job. In 2010, I laid out a three-year vision of where I want my new group to be and I think I’ve done fairly well.”
To young mechanical engineers, he offers this advice: “In school, each exam question is deterministic: it has only one answer. But the real world is more shades of grey than black and white. I recommend courses in statistics because they provide a perspective on real-world variation problems. And I tell them to pay attention to digital validation and simulation classes. That’s the wave of the future. If you spend more time validating products and processes while a concept is still on paper, you save a lot of headaches and money at the launch.”
DIVERSITY-MINDED COMPANIES SEEKING MANUFACTURING PROFESSIONALS
Check websites for current listings.
|Company and location
|BAE Systems (Arlington, VA)
|Defense and security productss
|Chrysler Group LLC (Auburn Hills, MI)
|Cummins Inc (Columbus, IN)
|Fuel systems, controls, air handling, filtration, emission solutions and electrical power generation systems
|Ford Motor Company (Dearborn, MI)
|GE Aviation (Evendale, OH)
|Jet and turboprop engines, components and
integrated systems for commercial, military,
business and general aviation aircraft
|General Motors (Detroit, MI)
|Gulfstream Aerospace (Savannah, GA)
|Advanced business jet aircraft
|Ingersoll Rand (Davidson, NC)
|Products and services for commercial, residential and industrial applications
|L-3 Mission Integration (Greenville, TX)
|Design, development, and integration of special-mission systems for military and commercial applications
|Newport News Shipbuilding
(Newport News, VA)
(Division of Huntington Ingalls Industries)
|Builds and services U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and submarines
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