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Rachel Hostyk

An Interview with a Maker

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Limor Fried is the founder and owner of Adafruit Industries, a manufacturer of educational electronics and the leading source of educational materials for young makers. She’s also one of the honorees of The Manufacturing Institute’s 2019 STEP Ahead Awards, which recognize accomplished women in manufacturing.

Limor Fried, founder and owner of Adafruit Industries.

Here is a brief interview with Fried for the NAM’s morning newsletter, Input.

Input: How did you come to create Adafruit?

Fried: I’ve always liked to make stuff and work with my hands. I studied engineering at MIT, and as I learned about electronics in class, I’d build projects in my spare time. I made a little MP3 player, a cell phone jammer, even a gaming device like a Game Boy. Then I published these projects online. People around the world would see my blog posts, and they’d email me saying, “Wow, these projects are so cool, I want to make my own MP3 player. Can you sell me a kit of the parts needed?”

Right after I graduated, I started making kits for people. I’d order all the parts and assemble them into a kit pack on my own. That was 13 years ago. Today, we have a facility here in Manhattan, with a pick-and-place line that does all the assembly. I don’t have to cut out parts and put them in bags anymore.

For me, creating a manufacturing company tapped into that same joy of creating that I felt when I was five. I’m just doing things on a bigger scale now.

Input: How has the market for hobbyist and educational materials changed over the past 13 years?

Fried: When I was a kid, doing electronics or assembly with kits was really hard. I wasn’t very successful in building stuff because the kits were difficult to use and the documentation wasn’t very good. Now, thanks to MakeCode from Microsoft and Scratch and CircuitPython and the Circuit Playground Express, it’s so much easier to build stuff. You don’t have to have a computer science background or even a computer at home. You can even program from a mobile phone.

At Adafruit we have almost 2,000 projects and guides available on learn.adafruit.com, which is our public learning system. We provide everything from beginner projects to complicated designs that require 3D printing, soldering, electronics, coding and more.

Input: Do the kids who use your products keep in touch as they grow up?  

Fried: Absolutely. We’ve had kids appear on our show-and-tell program, which we host every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. It’s been going on for 10 years, so the eight- or nine-year-olds who appeared in the beginning will email us years later to say, “I really loved building these projects as a kid and so I became an engineer.”

The early exposure matters a lot. You get kids into manufacturing at a young age, and they realize that you need the same skills when you’re older, too. As an engineer, you’re just working with bigger schematics and more CAD drawings.

Input: Do any examples of kids’ projects come to mind?

Fried: Not too long ago we had a Girl Scout troop come on the show with their robot. Each one of the girls showed off a different part of the robot from the chassis to the drive train to the central system. They all worked together on this robot, which taught them another essential skill—collaboration. Those girls will be well prepared to go into engineering someday.

Input: On the same subject, when it comes to inspiring more young people to go into manufacturing, is there anything else we should be doing?

Fried: Manufacturers and engineers can make a tremendous difference by mentoring children in their local school or community. The school probably has a robotics, 3D printing or metalworking club that would love to have an experienced adult come in and share his or her knowledge. You can also go to local events, like Maker Faires or state fairs, to show off some of the cool stuff that your company has built. There are many ways to get involved.

Input: How do you respond to young people who say, “I’d like to start my own business just like you did”?

Fried: The best advice I have is to start with a small run. Build something and then share it with people and get their feedback. It’s okay to build the first few products by hand. If your design is popular, then you can look into adding automation. Trying to optimize your automation early on can make things difficult because you end up optimizing the wrong thing. I made my first few kits by hand, as I said. It took longer, but I learned a lot about what to look for in the equipment I purchased later.

Input: What’s on the horizon for you in future? Where would you like Adafruit to go?

Fried: Adafruit is focused on making it easier than ever for anyone to build stuff with electronics. Python is the most popular programming language in the world, used in almost everything—and in almost every sector of manufacturing. We need to introduce kids to a version called CircuitPython, so they can use all the technology that’s out there and be prepared for jobs that require programming.

We’re also excited about assistive technology, which helps people with disabilities use the technology all around us. A lot of people need custom designs to suit their individual needs. We sell off-the-shelf components and electronics that can be used to build those solutions. That way, people who aren’t necessarily engineers by training can get plug-and-play parts, then customize and code everything they need. It’s a form of a small-scale manufacturing.

Interview with a STEP Ahead Award Winner: Elaine Thibodeau

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Elaine Thibodeau is the platform leader, manufacturing surgical vision at Johnson & Johnson. Below is an interview conducted for the NAM’s morning newsletter, Input.

Input: Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you come to be interested in manufacturing?

Thibodeau: I always liked making things, building things. I used to make furniture for my Barbie Dolls with raisin boxes and pieces of wood, stuff lying around in the garage.

 I was good in math, and I had a couple of teachers that encouraged me, so I ended up in engineering. But when I graduated it wasn’t easy to find a job. After working for the Canadian government for a while I realized I wanted to work in private industry, and the same day that Johnson & Johnson offered me a job I had an offer from Continental Can. I said, “Well, I don’t know who Continental Can is, but I know who Johnson and Johnson is, so I’ll do that.”

I’ll have been with J&J for 30 years in June, which is hard to believe. I’ve made over-the-counter medications, did six years of marketing and sales, and then went back into supply chain. I’ve done orthopedics, diagnostics, cancer drug manufacturing, consumer medical devices. And when we purchased Abbott Medical Optics, I had the opportunity to become its manufacturing lead. I’ve been doing that for two years and love it.

Input: In terms of your early education, what do you think was most valuable in preparing you for a manufacturing career?

Thibodeau: My father was an electrician, and he used to take me along with him. He taught me a lot about troubleshooting and the dos and don’ts. I learned a lot from him.

And when I was a kid, I had building blocks and I liked to sew. I was always interested in putting things together. Later on, I had an excellent calculus teacher in high school—I used to ask him for extra homework. Manufacturing really brought together my crafty side and my love of science and math.

Input: At one point in your career, you had to take over a third-party plant while keeping the production of a cancer medication going. That sounds like a high-wire act. Can you tell me a little about that?

Thibodeau: The drug in question was on the shortage list, so we were under a lot of scrutiny—from the media and from the FDA. We made a deal with a supplier to take over a section of their plant because they were closing down their operations. We had to isolate it to create a clean environment, take on their employees, and negotiate with the FDA to make sure we were in the clear.  

And meanwhile, we had doctors telling us that due to the shortages we were asking them to play God with their patients. Some people would get medication, some wouldn’t. And that always stuck with me—it motivated me every day to do my job well.

Input: Let’s say you’re talking to a young person who hears this story and thinks: “I want to be able to do that someday.” How do you prepare early on in your career for challenges like that?

Thibodeau: It’s important to have opportunities to collaborate and get out of your comfort zone. I coach a lot of young people these days and say, “If the new job or the new project doesn’t scare you a little bit you’re probably going to be bored in six months.”

Input: Tell me a little about getting Puerto Rican manufacturing companies up and running after the hurricane.

Thibodeau: The personal stories of devastation are just heartbreaking—whether it’s property loss, or discovering a relative has died under terrible circumstances, or worrying about elderly parents. Plus, day-to-day life was just physically difficult—think about going five days without washing your hair. We had to take care of the people first, making sure they had what they needed to be safe, whether that was a generator or medicines or clothing or diapers.

Meanwhile, getting the plant back up and running was a great example of local collaboration. The site leader [at one J&J facility] works in an industrial park and joined forces with the other businesses there, making sure that everyone had gas and other essentials and that decisions made by one company didn’t cause problems for another. They treated each other as partners.

Input: What else can we do to inspire more young women to join the manufacturing industry?

Thibodeau: This is personal for me—I’ve got three nieces. I tried so hard, but not one of them went into engineering, though one is a scientist. I think we have to keep fighting the myth that a manufacturing career doesn’t marry well with having a family, and that it’s harder to do than some other jobs. We need to find opportunities to bring young women into our factories and give them early, positive experiences with the industry.

 

An Interview with a STEP Emerging Leader

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Laura Mahany is a plant manager at Air Liquide and one of the emerging leaders recognized by the 2019 STEP Ahead Awards. Below is in interview conducted for the NAM’s morning newsletter, Input.

Input: Tell me a little about your background. What got you interested in working for a manufacturer?

Mahany: I wanted to be an engineer because of my love for math and science. When I started doing internships in college, I realized I liked the more hands-on work of manufacturing—the direct interaction with the meat of a business. I liked how every day was different, fast paced, challenging.

Input: Which parts of your education were the most valuable to your current career?

Mahany: As a child I did academic competitions in math and science, which really pushed me to improve my skills. But back then, we didn’t have all these STEM clubs and other activities the way kids do now. In college, I was a part of a program for women in engineering that made the larger engineering program feel a little bit more approachable.  

Input: You’ve mentored underprivileged kids in math and science. What sort of things did you do to inspire them?

Mahany: Each time we would learn about something different, for example, we would build rollercoasters or make ice cream using liquid nitrogen. These were experiments—we would change something, then study how it affected the outcome. I think that really drove home the scientific concepts for the kids—they had to think through how things worked for themselves.

Input: You went through a pretty dramatic experience early on in your career. What was it like to be caught in Hurricane Harvey?

Mahany: The hurricane came on very fast, and there wasn’t a lot of preparation time. We only realized it would be an actual threat to our operations two days before the storm hit. I hadn’t lived through a hurricane before, so I didn’t know what to expect.

We evacuated during the hurricane itself, but once it passed, my team and I came back to something out of a zombie apocalypse. There was no one around, the street lights didn’t work, and there was debris everywhere. The local government hadn’t given the okay for people to return, but my particular plant is critical to the safety of the community because we produce nitrogen, which other industries need to prevent the release of dangerous chemicals. So we had to restore operations very quickly.

The phone lines were down. We didn’t have internet. Plus, the hurricane traveled up to Houston, where the company has a lot of resources and personnel, so no one could come down to help us. And on top of that, many of our employees were also dealing with damage to their own homes. We had to collaborate with other industries to get what we needed, like cooling water and electricity. Luckily, I had good relationships with people at other companies—it really made such cooperation possible.     

Input: When you talk to young women on college campuses about going into manufacturing, what do they tell you about their interests or concerns?

Mahany: A lot of them are interested in sustainability. They’re interested in being part of a grand solution. I’ve noticed companies looking to be more sustainable as well; the mindset of the industry seems to be shifting toward environmental consciousness.

Input: How do you talk to college students about whether manufacturing is the right choice for them?

Mahany: I usually talk about sitting at a desk all day. In manufacturing, you almost never do that. Many people, especially women, like more collaborative environments, and manufacturing always offers you opportunities to interact with operators, technicians or other people in the facility. That makes your work much more interesting and engaging.

Input: When you’ve been mentored by women further on in their careers, what have you found most valuable from those relationships?

Mahany: My female mentors have helped me maintain confidence in myself and my career—it really motivates me to see women in high-level roles accomplishing great things. But I’ve found my male mentors valuable as well—some of my best advocates have been men, and I believe that men should make a point of mentoring women.

Input: And lastly, what more could we do to inspire young people to go into manufacturing?

Mahany: I think we should be more transparent. We should increase awareness of what those careers look like and what they mean. When you talk to a child, they always know what a doctor does or a teacher does because they interact with those people. But it’s not very often that they get to interact with engineers or visit a manufacturing plant. Manufacturing is just a big word to them—we need to make it real.

CEO Jay Timmons Talks #MFGTour19

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NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons sat down with the staff of the Input, the NAM’s members-only morning newsletter for manufacturing executives, to discuss the NAM’s State of Manufacturing Tour, which began today in Colorado.

Let’s start with the basics. What’s the “NAM State of Manufacturing Tour”? Where are you headed?

It’s our annual roadshow to spotlight the state of our industry and the amazing opportunities in modern manufacturing. We have a workforce crisis, with 4.6 million jobs to fill over the next decade in the industry. So, we need to show people the high-tech, high-paying jobs that are available in manufacturing in order to inspire a new generation of young people to join us.

This year, we’ll be in Colorado, Texas (where I’ll deliver the NAM State of Manufacturing Address), Ohio, Iowa, North Carolina, Minnesota, California and Arizona. That’s eight states and 25 cities over two weeks.

What is the focus this year?

I think of it as the next frontier in manufacturing. In other words, as our Manufacturing Leadership Council likes to say, it’s Manufacturing 4.0. It’s the way technology like AI, augmented reality, robotics and 3-D printing is reshaping our industry and empowering people to do more. Manufacturing will always be about people—we aren’t afraid of the future. Indeed, manufacturers are building the future, and by leveraging cutting-edge technology, we can do more, do it more safely and bring more talented people into manufacturing.

We want to share this story as broadly as possible. It’s important. Young people need to hear it and see it. Their parents need to see it, too, as well as policymakers and the press. And this tour reaches out to all of these audiences and engages them in a powerful way.

The NAM has been doing this tour since 2015. What have you, personally, learned about manufacturers from this undertaking?

On these tours, I’ve met people who do so many amazing things—they’re building a better world, with safer cars, brand-new cures and more sustainable food. But what continues to impress me most is how much these people love their jobs. It’s something you really have to witness firsthand to appreciate and one of the reasons I know manufacturing will make a great home for so many young people.

Tell us about a favorite moment from the tour.

It’s honestly hard to choose. But here’s one: last year, we visited Social Imprints, a screen-printing company in San Francisco that hires individuals who were formerly incarcerated and gives them a second chance.

There I met Miguel, whose parents were allowed to come to the U.S. in 1989 from El Salvador because of political oppression. But there was a restriction on the number of their children they could bring here. Miguel and his brother, the youngest in the family, stayed behind with a grandparent but eventually set out to be reunited with the rest of their family. And after being beaten and kidnapped by drug lords in Mexico, they finally made it to the U.S. Now, years later, they are both productive members of society. His siblings are in the medical and manufacturing fields.

Miguel is an example of how immigrants have strengthened our country, and his story is also a stark reminder that we must finally fix our immigration system.

Can readers still sign up to go to a tour event?

Absolutely, yes. Visit CreatorsWanted.org for information on how to attend an event, watch a livestream or join the conversation on social media (#MFGTour19).

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