ISAT's Uncommon Engineer
|Senior Kellie McDonald will never look at a pickup truck the same way again. No longer is it simply a mode of transportation, a vehicle for hauling or for slogging safely through snow and mud, nor even a romantic icon of a rugged, self- sufficient lifestyle.|
A summer internship at Ford Motor Company's Norfolk Assembly Plant changed the integrated science and technology major's perspective for good. At Ford, the assembly line snakes through several buildings and 3.8 miles of tunnels, conveyors move work along the line, parts hang from the ceiling, forklifts cross the floor, crates, cartons and racks line the aisles and fleets of partially assembled pickups wait in buffers along the way.
As a production supervisor in the body shop, McDonald oversaw the cab assembly of Ford's F150 and F250 models. Now she can certify that the most popular pickups in America are more than the sum of their parts. And she can vouch personally for 300 of those parts, as well as the effort that goes into their assembly.
"When the pickup leaves the body shop, it's just the shell of the truck, stripped metal, almost fragments," says McDonald, who this May will be part of ISAT's first full-fledged graduating class. "You get only the cab and the body sides. There are no bumpers, no bed, no doors, no wheels."
To assemble some of the 300 unique pieces of metal that go into creating each cab (there are 1,450 in each complete truck), the 20-year-old McDonald oversaw the work and well-being of 21 assembly workers, their timekeeping and paychecks, a complex and expensive system of 53 robots, compliance with safety regulations, quality control, production counts, yard sweeps, spot testing and troubleshooting. McDonald worked 12- to 13-hour days, once going an entire month without a day off. She had production meetings with supervisors and superiors before and after the 10-hour shifts she worked with her team and saw to special projects on weekends.
"The first two weeks it was so overwhelming that I would get home and swear I was never going back," McDonald says and slumps in mock exhaustion. "There was just so much to learn and coordinate. But it really did work out well," she says and beams a smile that only high stress topped with success can produce.
"The technology is incredible," says McDonald, who is concentrating her ISAT education in manufacturing. "In the place we called 'Jurassic Park,' there are millions of dollars worth of robotics and electronic testing equipment. The robots are bigger than me, with huge jaws and claws. One of the robots performs 24 welds."
"She's talking about Baby Jurassic and Jurassic," says Craig Boewe, McDonald's boss and Ford body area superintendent. "They're giant automated welding guns, robots with welders on the end, and they look like dinosaurs. One works inside the cab to do the welds."
Perceptrons, or lasers, at five stations measure the dimensions of each subassembly to ensure quality and a snug fit. In fact, says Ford Salaried Personnel Supervisor Steve Wiseman, the Norfolk Assembly Plant body shop is Ford's newest and most automated, to the tune of $330 million. Almost 160 robots perform 3,500 welds in each job. The body shop zone where Kellie worked is the most automated section of the plant with $100 million worth of technology - including 52 robots - and 21 employees.
"The level of responsibility is absolutely awesome," Wiseman says. "The body shop is our most technical area. There are more robots than people. That's not peanuts. We're not making widgets at $1 apiece, but $20,000 vehicles.
"To go into a technical and fast-paced, high-pressure department and to compete in a global market requires every ounce of energy a person can put out," he says. "It's impressive that Kellie can do that. Some can't handle it, and we are very selective."
Fast pace and high pressure translate to a body shop production rate of 67 jobs per hour. "That's 53 seconds that something sits in any one location," Boewe says. For automotive employees, however, that's longer than it sounds. "Hold your breath for 53 seconds," he says. "That's a long time, isn't it?"
"Kellie is the first nontraditional engineer to work in such a technical intern position for us," says Wiseman. Ford has traditionally selected mechanical and electrical engineering students for its 3-year-old internship program because automated processes, robotics and trouble-shooting require some direct applications.
JMU's ISAT program, however, does not specialize in engineering, says College of Integrated Science and Technology Provost Jackson Ramsey. "Instead," he says, "our program produces a skilled technologically based graduate, who, in addition to the scientific and technological applications, understands finance, interpersonal relations and management skills."
"The selling point for Ford," Wiseman adds, "aside from her interview, was that Kellie is one of the premier students in the new program at JMU. She had the technical interest, and her experience showed strong leadership capabilities.
"We're selective with supervisors," he says. "We give lots of interviews but we don't hire many. She did quite a job." McDonald is also one of the youngest people hired by Ford to work in such a technical area. The hourly employees she supervised, meanwhile, had an average 12-13 years of Ford seniority, and unlike robots, could not be supervised with electrical or mechanical know-how.
"That was difficult," McDonald admits. Some employees had up to 40 years of Ford experience and could have been her parents or grandparents. Some were also specialists like utility people, inspectors and repair people.
"I had to figure out how to work with these [veteran] line workers," she says. "They knew the ins and outs of the system. I had to learn how to supervise people who were much older than me. At first one person wouldn't even talk to me."
The Ford internship gave McDonald insight beyond the integration of the human resources, sophisticated technology and procedures of the body shop.
"I learned there that the customer is not just the consumer who buys the truck when it's done, but he's also the next step in the manufacturing process," she says. "The customer is also the next person to use what you've created. If we do something wrong [in the body shop], something won't fit later."
McDonald was forced to learn to think on her feet, to spot and solve problems, to consider those problems and solutions from many angles at once.
"If I had not been in ISAT, I would not have been prepared for the complexity of this internship," she says.
Industry, business, government and the university community alike have awaited the maturation of the ISAT curriculum and its results since the pro- gram's conception in the late 1980s. "What is integrated science and technology?" they ask. It's not engineering, it's not pure science, it's not solely business, it's not simply application.
"We understand that most companies don't know what ISAT means," Ramsey says. "As the success of Kellie McDonald's internship illustrates, ISAT is an applied science program that produces problem-solving-oriented graduates. The ISAT student is not a research scientist, nor an engineer, nor a business major. The ISAT professional, however, will have graduated with components of all of these disciplines so that he or she is prepared to help organizations solve scientific and technology-based problems.
"I was in an engineering co-op program with Ford as an undergraduate back in the 1950s," the CISAT provost says. "I wish now that I had some of the ISAT education in my engineering program. I think I could have been of more value to Ford."
Approximately 75 percent of ISAT seniors will hit the job market this May with impressive credentials from companies like Merck, New Jersey Natural Gas, Kraft Foods, Wella Manufacturing, Asian Vegetable and Electronic Data Systems. This year's larger class of juniors follows with more internships as rigorous and demanding as McDonald's summer with Ford. These high quality internships are proving grounds that bode well for the future careers of ISAT graduates, who are poised to move into positions in manufacturing, technical sales and publishing, quality assurance, industrial hygiene, biotechnology, the environment.
Kellie McDonald, for one, has a job if she wants it. Ford has invited her back for long-term employment after she graduates. .
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