Celebrating Women in Smart Manufacturing

Rashmi Vadlakonda explains 3D-printing technology to Project Scientist girls who visited Trane Technologies corporate headquarters in North Carolina.
Rashmi Vadlakonda explains 3D-printing technology to Project Scientist girls who visited Trane Technologies corporate headquarters in North Carolina.

March 8, 2024, is International Women’s Day, which was established in 1909 to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality and representation. This is especially important in industries such as manufacturing, where representation of women in leadership roles lags.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2022, women made up about 47% of the American workforce but only 30% worked in manufacturing. Women held one out of four management positions. However, those women who worked in manufacturing earned, on average, 16% more than the national median annual income for employed women.

There has been some progress. Although men still hold the majority (68%) of U.S. manufacturing jobs, the Census Bureau’s Job-to-Job Flows Explorer shows that from 2010 until 2020, the share of women in manufacturing jobs rose in every working-age category up until the COVID-19 pandemic started, then began climbing again in 2021.

Attracting more women to manufacturing includes an industry-wide effort to encourage girls to study STEM and work to change the perspectives about careers in manufacturing. The profiles and stories shared here are representative of the thousands of amazing women from a variety of backgrounds and career stages. We hope they inspire you to support, encourage and shine a light on other leaders—and future leaders——every day of the year.

Diana Bauer, PhD, Deputy Director, U.S. Department of Energy, the Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office

The Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office (AMMTO) was formed in October 2022 with a vision to create a globally competitive national manufacturing sector that accelerates the adoption of innovative materials and manufacturing technologies in support of a clean, decarbonized economy. In her role, Bauer helps lead the strategic direction and execution of AMMTO’s funding to advance energy-related materials and manufacturing.

“Advances in manufacturing are a fundamental need to advance our ambitious energy agenda,” Bauer said during a recent webinar presentation to the Society for Science at User Research Facilities.

Meeting the Moment

“AMMTO finds itself at the intersection of transforming energy and transforming manufacturing,” Bauer explained. “We’re thinking about accelerating change—whether that’s accelerating the scale up of manufacturing processes or envisioning how we will enable technology development needed for the future energy economy, from batteries to wind turbines to semiconductors. Advanced materials are important to help us meet this moment.”

Diana Bauer, Deputy Director of the Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office (AMMTO), U.S. Department of Energy, during a presentation at SOUTHTEC 2023. (Photo credit: David Butler II)
Diana Bauer, Deputy Director of the Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies Office (AMMTO), U.S. Department of Energy, during a presentation at SOUTHTEC 2023. (Photo credit: David Butler II)

AMMTO has facilities, test-beds and incubators to foster acceleration of innovation to commercialization. “In some cases, these facilities are linked to manufacturing of a specific energy technology, and in other cases they are platform technology that apply more broadly,” Bauer added.

“User facilities help us innovate and validate new materials and manufacturing technologies. These facilities are equally important for the training and development of innovators that will shape America’s clean energy future.”

As part of Department of Energy activities to support entrepreneurs, the lab-embedded entrepreneurship program (LEEP) includes early stage startups at one of four national labs along with mentorship with a lab scientist. “This is a program that really captures the imagination of a lot of people and has started a lot of businesses,” Bauer said.

The mission to inspire people and drive innovation to transform materials and manufacturing for America’s energy future was front and center at SOUTHTEC 2023 in Greenville, S.C., where Bauer joined CESMII CEO John Dyck and other industry leaders for a panel discussion entitled “A Local, National and Global Vision for Smart Manufacturing.” The session highlighted how national smart manufacturing strategies and priorities can align to accelerate the realization of sustainable and competitive manufacturing supply chains.

Fatima Majid, Senior Manager, Talent Programs, LIFT

Although Majid’s interest in STEM was sparked at an early age, her life took several twists and turns before landing at her current role with LIFT, a manufacturing innovation institute in Detroit, Mich. She shared some of the details of her journey during a recent panel discussion at SOUTHTEC that featured her and three other “Modern Makers,” designated by Manufacturing USA, who embody the mission to secure the future of U.S. manufacturing through innovation, education and collaboration.

Majid calls LIFT a “sandbox of innovative technology,” including virtual welding units, pneumatic equipment, advanced manufacturing robotics such as the FANUC blacksmithing robot, and CNC cutting and drilling machines. There are additive manufacturing 3D printers, linear friction welders and computed tomography scanners that use X-rays to produce three-dimensional representations of scanned objects, such as automotive or aerospace assemblies.

Fatima Majid, LIFT’s senior manager of talent programs, was part of a Modern Makers panel
at SOUTHTEC 2023 in Greenville, S.C. (Photo credit: David Butler II)

Fatima Majid, LIFT’s senior manager of talent programs, was part of a Modern Makers panel at SOUTHTEC 2023 in Greenville, S.C. (Photo credit: David Butler II)

Prior to her current role as senior manager of talent programs, Majid was an industrial robotic operations instructor at LIFT, supporting the credentialing program initiative designed to provide industry recognized skills in articulate robotics. Course curriculum included safety, mechanical basics, electrical systems, PLC control logic, operations, programming and fluid power basics, set-up and configuration, and troubleshooting. Students were trained on Comau, FANUC and Pegasus robots.

Majid says anyone can learn how to use robotics and other forms of advanced manufacturing technology—if they are inquisitive, enjoy learning how things work, or how to use materials and equipment to improve someone’s life or business. She’s had students as young as 16 participate in the LIFT robotics training programs. Majid also oversees LIFT’s Operation Next, which helps military service men and women build valuable advanced manufacturing skills to aid their transition into successful civilian careers.

Cultivating Curiosity, Building Skills

When she was a child, Majid’s father encouraged her to play with toys that brought him joy at a similar age, including his G.I. Joe figurines and building blocks. Inspired by her mother’s love for math, Majid learned to work with numbers and loved solving puzzles, which hastened her spatial skills development and the first step in her STEM education.

“My parents were unable to enroll in higher educational institutions,” she notes. “But they were self-taught and valued education.”

During her scholastic career, Majid continued to grow her technical acumen while participating in robotics competitions as part of Tuskegee University’s mechatronics course. As a mother, she exposed her own daughter to STEM activities at the library and other local organizations.

For students or others intimidated by technology, Majid recommends they participate in events that can provide hands-on experience, such as science fairs. This allows them to see robotics, life sciences or agriculture innovation.

One thing is clear, Majid has a passion to empower the current and future workforce with advanced manufacturing skills that can help them find great paying jobs, sustaining career paths and ways to apply their own passions in pursuit of their dreams.

Kelsey Unser, Additive Manufacturing Product Design Engineer Caterpillar

Kelsey Unser in front of the parts wall in a Caterpillar facility that was 99.5% additively manufactured. She lead the team that printed and built the wall. (Photo provided by Caterpillar)
Kelsey Unser in front of the parts wall in a Caterpillar facility that was 99.5% additively manufactured. She lead the team that printed and built the wall. (Photo provided by Caterpillar)

Unser has accomplished a lot in a short time. She was recently named an SME Media “30 Under 30” honoree for her accomplishments in advanced manufacturing. As an additive design engineer, Unser’s job is to translate solutions from grand ideas to physical parts.

“Additive lets me do that in new and unconventional ways that were previously not possible,” she says. “I learned a love of advanced manufacturing processes, plastics and composites from an early age,” she recalls. “My dad is a chemical engineer with a career focused on carbon-fiber composites and got me started young with all sorts of very engaging projects.”

Unser explains that composite work always had an elegance to it that appealed to her artistic side that other fabrication methods couldn’t match. “When I started college, I joined the robotics team, and the first thing they asked me to do was design a robot chassis that could be 3D printed. After that I was hooked and joined the additive research team.”

Those experiences led Unser to embark on a career in Caterpillar’s Additive Manufacturing Engineering group. “Additive has few limitations, and that has allowed my imagination to run wild with innovative solutions over the last several years.”

Overcoming Challenges

The journey isn’t always easy or straightforward. One of Unser’s challenges, for example, came to light when she was diagnosed with dyslexia in the third grade—but this was quickly turned into a unique learning tool.

“I struggled with reading and writing throughout school, both in English classes and math and science classes,” she explains. “What I did learn is how to study, how to organize and how to learn effectively in ways that use the advantages dyslexia gave me. Through hard work, supportive parents and amazing friends, I graduated high school and college with high marks.”

Early in her career as an engineer at Caterpillar, Unser realized she had not escaped the challenges of reading and writing. “I learned the importance of clear and concise communication in college, but it was something I had to spend extra time each day carefully proofreading the simplest emails to make sure they communicated what I intended in a professional manner. I overcame this like I had as a kid, relying on adaptations such as spellcheck, text-to-speech and the understanding of my teammates.”

Her dyslexia can also be used as an advantage in additive manufacturing. “I think of everything in terms of complex 3D shapes, and 3D printing is the manufacturing technology that can bring those complex thoughts into reality to work for me,” Unser says. “Focusing on my advantages as a person with dyslexia was what truly let me overcome the daily challenges and become the successful additive engineer I am today.”

Passion Pays

Unser is passionate about creating in every aspect of her life. This includes employing her professional skills in other areas.

“I own printers at home and use them to create all sorts of projects, from board game pieces to parts for my jeep.” She recently started designing and building a functional, full-scale BB-8 droid from the “Star Wars” movies.

Unser is also enthusiastic about passing along her knowledge and excitement for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) to the next group of innovators. To this end, she is active in the FIRST Robotics community, which was founded in 1989 by inventor Dean Kamen to help build skills, confidence and resilience in students.

Unser has set a high bar for herself and her career aspirations. One of the goals she strives to achieve, for example, is becoming a technical leader in the AM space.

“My goal is to never stop developing knowledge and skills in this rapidly growing industry,” she confides. “There will always be new technologies, software and techniques to learn, and opportunities to develop myself. I hope to use my accumulated knowledge to both forward technology and educate future generations of innovators.”

To that end, Unser offers this advice to young people considering careers in manufacturing. ”I suggest getting out and start learning hands-on skills through STEM clubs, maker-spaces or just in your own garage. It builds your skills and your confidence.”

Looking toward the future, Unser believes the potential of smart manufacturing is limitless. “I am most excited about the ability to produce what was once unthinkable, consistently and effectively because of the increased implementation and development of smart manufacturing.”

Rashmi Vadlakonda, SMART Transformation SME-Manufacturing Engineer Trane Technologies

Rashmi Vadlakonda

Vadlakonda started her career at Trane Technologies as an additive manufacturing application engineer in the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Network of Excellence. Within a team of three, Vadlakonda adopted and implemented commercially available 3D-printing technologies in support of Trane Technologies’ factories and engineering centers. Today, her career is focused on solving complex challenges using industry 4.0 tools.

“Industry 4.0 is making waves,” she says. “I look forward to seeing these effects trickle down to everyday manufacturing activities, and to see how they revolutionize the way goods and services are provided to consumers.”

In addition to her technical leadership, she serves as the Women in Manufacturing (WiM) vice chair in South Carolina, where she builds a strong community for females in the industry. Moving forward, Vadlakonda envisions point-of-need manufacturing growing and performed in a more sustainable way. “This can be made possible by combining tools such as automation, digitization and advanced manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing,” she explains.

Bridging the Gap

Among changes she’d like to see in the industry, Vadlakonda says the gap between the current and next-generation workforce needs to shrink. “On the one side are experienced professionals with legacy knowledge, and on the other side are fresh talent versed with advanced technologies,” she notes. “We need to see more intergenerational mentoring with knowledge transfer from both sides to encourage people to explore manufacturing careers.”

A role model to young people pursuing careers in manufacturing, Vadlakonda also was an honoree in SME Media’s “30 Under 30” program, which highlights 30 outstanding people under the age of 30 for their exceptional contributions to the manufacturing industry.

Melonee Wise, Chief Technology Officer, Agility Robotics

Melonee Wise

Among her many accomplishments, Wise is the recipient of the 2022 Engelberger Robotics Award, often dubbed the world’s most prestigious robotics honor. Prior to joining Oregon-based Agility Robotics Inc., as CTO in 2023, Wise was vice president and general manager of robotics automation for Zebra Technologies Corp. in Illinois. In 2021, Zebra acquired Fetch Robotics, which Wise co-founded and served as CEO since its formation in 2015.

With all that to her credit, when people ask her what she does, Wise says she builds robots. “More specifically, I work on and develop robots—for warehouses, logistics and manufacturing settings—to move materials from one part of the warehouse to another.”

Connections Matter

One thing she couldn’t easily automate, however, was becoming an entrepreneur, which Wise concedes was one of her biggest career challenges. “There’s a big difference between building robots and building companies,” she says, noting that having strong mentors and connections buoyed her success. “Good investors who know you well can partner you with the people that suit your temperament.”

Early in her career, Wise saw the potential for collaborative robots inside semi-structured facilities, including warehouses. “Labor shortages have been acute for so long,” she explains. “I’ve been working on that issue for more than a decade now. Along the way, the MHI community has been a great resource and has put me in touch with many people that I have come to value as mentors.”

MHI is a material handling, logistics and supply chain association. According to recent data from the U.S. Department of Commerce and Bureau of Labor Statistics, material handling and logistics is one of America’s largest and fastest growing industries. Considered a “mega industry,” the consumption of material handling and logistics equipment and systems in America exceeds $156 billion per year, and producers employ more than 700,000 workers.

Wise Perspectives

When it comes to change needed to move manufacturing forward, fear is a barrier, according to Wise. “Manufacturing certainly isn’t alone in this challenge, but I find myself constantly battling the status quo,” she says, equating the struggle to “fighting against inertia within an organization.”

Related to the future of smart manufacturing, Wise has her eye on something big. “Because today’s manufacturing sector has the means to measure and monitor everything they do, it leads to the opportunity for manufacturers to become more environmentally conscious. There are efficiencies with respect to a company’s carbon footprint that are just starting to come to light.”

After spending a decade contributing to open source software for the robotics industry, Wise is focused on making an impact. “As a technologist, I want my technology to have an impact on the world. That’s not just the robots. There’s nothing like seeing your work out in the world, and I want to keep making that happen.”

Having earned the titles of founder, co-founder and CEO, Wise’s career achievement bar is already set high. An avid hiker and scuba diver, Wise is focused on following her passions and encouraging future leaders to do the same.

“Frankly, the advice I give to girls and women is the same advice I give to everyone,” Wise says. “There’s a lot more (job) diversity in robotics and manufacturing than people realize. There’s hardware and software, of course, but also marketing, research and analysis, UI (user interface) and more. What’s most important is finding something you are passionate about; that thing you’re going to work on whether or not someone is paying you.”

Lisa Zasada, Director of Reliability & Improvement, General Mills Inc.

In her role at General Mills, Zasada is accountable for leveraging data and technical expertise to improve the company’s manufacturing systems by eliminating complex losses, accelerating capacity improvements and driving consistent and predictable performance.

Zasada is also a member of the Smart Manufacturing Executive Council, created by CESMII and SME as a national think tank of industry leaders to accelerate the adoption of smart manufacturing in the U.S.

Lisa Zasada (left) joins Habib Quazi, innovation and business transformation director, ExxonMobil, on stage at SOUTHTEC 2023 during a panel on “Manufacturing Challenges, Opportunities and Implications.” (Photo credit: David Butler II)
Lisa Zasada (left) joins Habib Quazi, innovation and business transformation director, ExxonMobil, on stage at SOUTHTEC 2023 during a panel on “Manufacturing Challenges, Opportunities and Implications.” (Photo credit: David Butler II)

During a recent CESMII Smart Manufacturing Mindset webinar on continuous Improvement (CI), Zasada explained that, “A smart manufacturing leader is excited about CI because it only amplifies the impact that smart manufacturing can have on our sites, and the two are complementary.”

She’s been with General Mills for 23 years, which has been about evenly split between onsite manufacturing and the corporate engineering team. “I currently have the privilege of leading a team leading improvements across our manufacturing sites, and as part of that we are leading our digital improvement work.”

While smart manufacturing should be grounded in data, Zasada said strategies should deliver on business needs—with a focus on top opportunities. However, with any new project or potential change in processes, there needs to be a focus on people.

“Manufacturing absolutely is a people business,” she added. “Building capability and leading change management is foundational, whether you’re doing that in the context of CI or a smart manufacturing initiative.”

Regardless of the size of the organization, getting alignment between IT, OT and the manufacturing site is a challenging part of the journey. “People speak different languages when it comes to data and technology,” Zasada noted. “Sometimes you can end up in conversations where it’s really difficult to decipher what is being said by different players,” she continued, adding that leveraging a growth mindset, and using data in new ways and encouraging experimentation as you continue to drive improvements, are keys to getting people involved.

“Acknowledge that there is a lot of growth that all of us need to lean into as part of this smart manufacturing journey,” she said. “Storytelling is so important. Bringing to life the way change will drive improvement on the plant floor and in the day-to-day life of technicians and mechanics is critical.”

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