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Cross-Industry Experience can Enhance an Engineer's Value by Leading to a More Effective Decision-Making Approach

by Arin Holecek

 

 

 

As a mechanical and biomedical engineer, I’ve had the opportunity to work in a number of interesting fields, from the lightning protection industry to the tissue heart valve industry. Each position I’ve held has provided unique technical challenges and lessons, but there are also common threads running throughout each experience which, combined, tell a bigger story about working as an engineer across multiple industries.

Lightning and Surge Protection

This company designs and manufactures equipment for use in protecting facilities from lightning and electrical surges and includes customers such as FedEx, ExxonMobil, and NASA.  It was here that I learned 2D CAD and picked up some mechanical engineering basics such as how to read ANSI welding symbols and size bolts for securing metal structures to buildings, accounting for wind loads.  The most important lesson I learned in this position came from my mentor.  He advised me to never underestimate those in manufacturing who may not have a degree - those building your designs - because they have mechanical skills and expertise that engineers may not, especially engineers straight out of school.  This is a lesson I’ve carried throughout my career and it has served me well.  I’ve enjoyed building many productive, solid relationships with drafters, designers, machinists, machine operators, and lab technicians as we work together toward a common goal.  It’s also a lesson I’ve taught as a mentor myself.  In this position I was also introduced to the idea of striking a balance between efficiency and thoroughness, developing a pragmatic approach to getting work done only as precisely as is necessary within given time constraints.  This is a balance I’ve worked to strike throughout my career.

Oil Industry

After graduating from the Colorado School of Mines with a BS in Mechanical Engineering, I worked for an oil services company called Baker Hughes, specifically for the oil field drill bit division Hughes Christensen, based out of The Woodlands, TX.  It was here that I was introduced to oil well drilling technology, and I worked on the design of “tricone” drill bits, or bits that have three rotating steel cones with tungsten carbide teeth inserts.  This design work involved determining tooth orientations, sizes, geometries, and materials best suited for breaking up the type of rock in a given geographical region. This experience allowed me to meet an incredible group of engineers, designers, scientists, machinists, and machine operators of a wide range of backgrounds and with vast amounts of knowledge in material science, machining, drilling technology, fluid flow, and mechanical and fluid simulation.  The highlight of this experience was a three-week trip to the Middle East to meet coworkers face to face and to see first-hand where my drill bits were being used.  The most fun challenge of working here was balancing the urgency of the requests from the field with the rigidity of the complex production system in place.  I learned to circumvent a number of entrenched processes in order to deliver bits quickly to the field, and it was through this that I was able to exercise most of my creativity, as well as to learn how to work productively with many different personality types.

Academia

Following this, I went to school in Memphis, TN to earn an MS in Biomedical Engineering through a joint program at both The University of Memphis and The University of Tennessee.  It was here that I had the opportunity to work with professors of both the biological sciences and engineering.  Coursework included classes focused on biology, anatomy and physiology, engineering math, and mechanical engineering. My thesis work involved designing a machine and developing protocols for subjecting cartilage cells to mechanical stress.  Working on an open-ended project starting from the ground up was the most challenging and rewarding aspect of this experience, and I learned resourcefulness, critical and independent thinking, how to set work priorities for myself, and how to work within a steeply hierarchical culture.   It was up to me to make sure my ideas were heard and that I had sound technical arguments for any decision I made.  While it was incredibly rewarding to be challenged with learning so much in terms of a new work culture and a new field of information, I decided to next pursue an engineering job in the medical device industry.

Medical Devices

After graduating, I worked for Medtronic MiniMed in Northridge, CA as a disposables R&D engineer, specifically designing infusion sets for delivering insulin subcutaneously to diabetic patients.  Here I did some 3D CAD modeling, but mostly I did a lot of hands-on lab work, testing different configurations against Quality Engineering requirements, and developing processes to be implemented at large scale by Manufacturing Engineering.  This provided a great education in injection molded plastic design and tolerance analysis, as well as insight into how FDA requirements influence design.  In addition to needing to design with FDA requirements in mind, it was important to see how valuable clinician and customer input was in developing user-friendly devices.  This was also my first exposure to the patent application process.  Thankfully, we had a helpful, competent legal department who aided our design team in applying for patents for our designs.  One interesting aspect of this job was being able to view a corporate takeover from the inside out.  MiniMed had recently been acquired by Medtronic, and I witnessed the growing pains as the nimble, small company culture was overtaken by the more rigid large company culture.

I next had the opportunity to transfer to the Heart Valve division of Medtronic in Santa Ana, CA to work as a senior product development engineer.  In this position I worked closely with lab technicians to develop new tissue valve designs.  It was a surprise to learn that my sewing skills would be so valued here in developing prototypes!  I gained a healthy respect for the highly skilled lab and manufacturing technicians sewing these valves, many of whom had previously worked as tailors and seamstresses. Figuring out how to create 3D CAD models of tissue was difficult, but the most difficult part of this experience was trying to navigate the competitive environment created when there is a race to get complex, high-demand designs to market.

This position provided further opportunity to work with patent lawyers, however, as our team and I generated numerous ideas for patent submission.  One of the most valuable tools I learned in this position was risk analysis, which was crucial when designing such a high risk and highly FDA-regulated product, but which can be applied to a wide range of products and situations.

Electronic Materials

Following this I worked as a senior process engineer for Honeywell Electronic Materials in Spokane, WA, and later as an R&D engineer.  Materials for use in electronics were refined and processed here.  Components that needed chemical and electroplating were processed here as well.  Customers included Intel, AMD, and Medtronic.  This position was a wild ride of endless “emergency” situations as complications arose with any of a number of various manufacturing processes.  I worked directly with other process engineers and manufacturing personnel to keep processes running smoothly and yielding high numbers with a low percentage of errors.  Thinking on my feet to handle and prioritize the “emergencies” was the greatest skill I learned here.  This position provided a wonderful opportunity to learn from hard working engineers of backgrounds ranging from chemical and mechanical engineering to material science.  The sheer number and variety of processes and challenges was exciting and rewarding to tackle.  One of the hardest parts of working here was being subject to the rapidly changing demands of the semiconductor industry – our production lines were expected to respond rapidly to the demands of our customers, which meant priorities changing sometimes hour to hour.

It has been an incredible experience working in multiple industries.  My favorite parts of each job have always included learning a new industry language and culture, picking up new technical skills, further developing problem solving skills, and meeting and working with new people.  Working in so many industries has led to a better understanding of how to balance the often-competing demands of Marketing, Quality, Regulatory, Manufacturing, and of customers themselves.  It has provided valuable perspective regarding the design process itself – and has made me more effective when it comes to using tools such as design and risk analysis to optimize a design rather than to grind the creative process to a halt.  In the end, I’ve learned that most employees, regardless of the industry or department, just want to produce good, useful work.  I find those people and proceed to produce good, useful work with them!



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