Ellen Lee is Technical Leader of Additive Manufacturing for Research & Advanced Engineering at Ford Motor Company, responsible for leading the development and implementation of advanced polymer additive manufacturing (AM) materials and technologies for functional use in the automotive sector. She established Ford’s dedicated AM research program in 2014 to enable its use to drive product innovation, enhance quality, and improve efficiency and flexibility in manufacturing. In her current role, Dr. Lee advises the strategic direction for AM and its integration across the enterprise through activities including training and education, standardization and qualification, and development of AM technology roadmap for scalable production.
What advice would you share with someone looking into a career in additive manufacturing in 2020?
You should consider what really excites you and drives you in additive manufacturing and focus on that aspect. Because we are at the beginning of using additive manufacturing for scaled production, there are so many challenges and interesting problems to be solved, to really delve into. So once you understand what you love, you can narrow your focus. For example, if you are interested in things like exploring the art of the possible and developing fundamental technologies, you may want to look at a career in academia. But if you are excited by the prospect of automation and mechantronics and getting your hands dirty putting things together, you may want to explore a small startup. You really need to look inside to see what excites you about AM because there are so many opportunities for innovation in additive manufacturing that it’s too overwhelming to address them all.
When hiring, what are you looking for in a candidate?
In the beginning of our AM journey when I was starting to build up my research team, there weren’t that many people who had any hands-on experience – or any experience – in additive manufacturing. So because of the nature of the work to explore and develop these emerging technologies, I concentrated on finding people who could think critically about identifying the fundamental problems and who could effectively break down those very complex problems into manageable parts.
Something that seems like an intractable problem becomes less so by taking it step by step: if you can break it down, you can accomplish any task. That’s a skill that is very hard to teach, it’s something that is part of the way you think and the way you work. That was a key thing that I really looked for in a team member.
What is the best advice you were given in your career?
Someone once told me that I shouldn’t be afraid to mess up, or break something. This was with regards to doing experiments and running equipment in a discovery setting – if you don’t break at least a couple of pieces of equipment, then you are not really pushing the envelope of innovation. I think I’ve embraced that and taken it further to include taking calculated risks in decision making as well. So don’t be afraid of at least some level of risk. Yes, I broke a few machines, but doing so not only helped me learn what the real capabilities are, it also helped me learn how to fix machines!
The reason this has resonated with me is due to my career in a research setting – from my PhD to my current role in industrial research. We need to keep in mind that if you are doing fundamental research, you don’t know what your end result will be, you don’t know if your hypothesis is going to work. Breaking things comes with the territory. It is really about embracing a mindset that if you have a result that is not what you expect it to be, it is also a success. Too often, when someone gets a result that is unexpected, people consider it a failure. In truth, knowing what not to do can be more instructive than a “successful” outcome.
In your experience, what are some actionable ways we can promote gender equality?
This is a really tough one, because if we were all very successful at tackling this, we wouldn’t even need to discuss it!
One of the things that I have seen that is very helpful in promoting gender equality, is having men stand up for women when they see inequality in action.
For example, if during a meeting a woman is interrupted and talked over, to have a male colleague say “wait a minute, let’s hear what she has to say” is extremely helpful. It’s not necessarily something that everybody can necessarily do, but it’s something that somebody who is in a position of leadership or in that “well-represented group” can do.
How can a company like Ford be a leader in gender equality in our industry?
One of the things that we do already (at Ford) and that I feel strongly about is outreach. We have a SWE (Society of Women Engineers) group within Ford who are quite active in promoting gender equality, and outreach is one of the ways we tackle this. Getting middle-school-aged girls to consider a career in STEM by talking about and showing them what engineers – and specifically women engineers – at Ford do, is really effective.
It’s important to show them that someone who looks like them is doing really cool work.
In a similar vein, highlighting the women who are in prominent roles in automotive in external venues and media can show not only school-aged girls but everybody, that women are successful today in these jobs. For women who are seeking mid-career changes, or returning to the workforce, seeing these successful women might inspire them to consider moving into areas that have traditionally been male-dominated.
As a leader, quite a few people are looking up to you. I’d like to know who inspires you:
There are so many people who inspire me! It is people like yourself, who look beyond just their own career to take on something bigger, where they can make a huge change in the world, where there is some inequality or some big leap to be made, who inspire me the most. I think it’s very difficult to bring together people from different industries, different technical areas, different career roles, different leadership roles, to tackle a complex issue by seeing and working together on a common goal. People who are able to motivate and excite a diverse group of people for a bigger purpose are really inspiring to me.