Meghan Olds, Director of Operations, Powder Atomization, Oerlikon
BS, Materials Science and Engineering, University of Michigan
MS, Materials Science and Engineering, University of Dayton
Meghan Olds’ journey with engineering began in elementary school. Encouraging young students to explore their creativity, the school offered an accelerated program that included competitions focused on invention. Thus, when she was in fifth grade, Olds put her problem-solving skills to the test in one of these competitions and created a floor cleaning mop; think of today’s Wet Jet mop that many people use today as an example.
“I took my mom’s mop, drilled holes in the bottom, Velcroed the water bottle to the handle, and used a tube to run the water bottle to the sponge portion of the mop where I drilled the holes,” said Olds. “I then presented it as an invention that you can put any cleaner you would like in the water bottle and mop the floor with ease.”
Education at her school continued to fuel her love of problem solving. As with many women who study engineering, various teachers and mentors played roles in guiding her engineering abilities.
“I found mentors everywhere. There were too many to count for me to name just one or two,” said Olds.
She found all the science classes interesting. It helped that all of her teachers in chemistry, physics, and calculus made the classes and learning fun. “The science and math teachers seemed to have the best sense of humor,” she said. “I would advise young female students to embrace all the people around you while you’re young. Be curious and follow what ignites your passions.”
Throughout her schooling, Olds had a number of opportunities to problem solve and build. “I continued to love to build items whether with Legos or other materials for school projects,” she said.
Then in high school, she discovered an area that would become her career.
“I discovered Materials Science & Engineering as a junior at an engineering camp at the University of Michigan. I found that I wanted to dedicate my career to making new materials and learning about the manufacturing processes.”
Mentors continued to play a role in her education. “At the University of Michigan, my classmates inspired me,” she said. “I even married one of my classmates from my Materials Science & Engineering undergraduate program.”
After college, Olds moved into her business career. Many leaders and colleagues at GE and Oerlikon helped push her forward to the next level. “Having a supportive team and network makes all the difference to having a fulfilling and successful career in engineering,” she added.
While some people think most engineers work individually, Olds finds her engineering efforts are highly collaborative.
“When I went into leadership positions, I realized my favorite part about engineering is uniting a team together to create a solution to a problem. Our teams are filled with many skillsets and perspectives. It is always beautiful to see how a diverse team can solve complicated problems with often simple approaches.”
Most engineers enjoy a few aspects of their jobs more than others. However, Olds finds aspects to appreciate in all engineering areas that impact her field.
“There are so many engineering disciplines that there is not a part I don’t appreciate or like,” she said. “I may enjoy the process engineering side, but 100% appreciate the value of programming and controls engineering. When we have an issue on a piece of equipment, we get the right expertise to resolve it.
“Plus, I love introducing new products and processes. I enjoy the design of experiments and structuring specifications so they are both profitable and manufacturable.”
When it comes to accomplishments in her engineering career, Olds is most proud of helping start up a new facility in Plymouth, Mich. She became part of the start-up team when she joined Oerlikon in 2017. This facility was built to make metal powders for additive manufacturing and advanced coating applications.
“When I hired into Oerlikon, the foundation was just poured,” she said. “I was the Quality Manager and worked to start up the lab and get the site AS9100/ISO9001 certified. In just under one year of our opening date, we passed our AS9100 audit with no findings. The entire team worked hard to build production processes that were compliant with an aerospace quality management system. As we continued our journey, I added engineers to my team and then was promoted to the Director of Operations in 2020.”
The last two years have not been easy on any business and have brought unique challenges to everyone. Olds received her promotion just as many states and businesses were shifting to a work-from-home model to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, which brought a new set of challenges, but which also led to additional accomplishments.
“We had to balance the uncertainty our customers were facing and strategically think about how we navigate forward for the future of the site during that time,” she said. “We were able to qualify a handful of new product introductions that helped strengthen our product portfolio. And by the end of 2020, we were stronger than ever as a team, but also stronger from a cost standpoint. We ended up winning the Metco Team award with our Troy site based on our collaboration and savings for Oerlikon.”
Leading by example
A common skill among women engineers is the ability to work in or lead a team of fellow professionals. For Olds, having an engineering foundation has helped her think logically about a problem, even non-technical problems.
“I use these same fundamentals to create actions to work towards a solution,” she said. “For example, in teams, many times the root cause of issues can be because of communication. The next step is to break it into actions to improve communication. Over the course of my career, I have learned many valuable lessons, such as patience to understand the whole problem, how to build a team with the right skillsets, and to take advantage of each day.
“My first big professional project when I graduated college was my six-sigma project on inertia welding,” she added. “At that time, I was learning statistical analysis and the DMAIC/DFSS approaches. We were optimizing the inertia welding parameters for welding tubes onto case structures. I learned a lot from the engineer and technician about the welding processes. One of my favorite parts was performing the metallography on the cross-sections of the welds and organizing the mechanical testing results into a regression equation. This helped us predict parameters for joining two different or two similar materials.
“I also have a patent with a team of colleagues for designing equipment for cleaning gas turbine blade tips in a novel way. The idea was conceived by an engineering manager, and we worked with a company to help turn this idea into a unique piece of equipment. There were many designs of experiment trials to optimize the cleaning process. By the end of the experiments, we showed feasibility of the process and presented the results to our stakeholders.”
One of the more important lessons Olds has learned is to embrace her style of management and leadership. While women engineers bring a range of talents and abilities to their leadership styles, a part of their success involves embracing their unique styles.
“I see that my style of leadership may be different than others in similar roles,” said Olds. “I have learned to embrace my style and be authentic. There are many paths to reach a goal. This is a key point regardless of gender. One factor in leadership is to create a safe working environment so you and your team can perform at your best abilities.”
Encouraging future generations of women engineers
To inspire more young women to enter engineering fields, Olds thinks it’s important to start as early as possible.
“I have a nine-year-old daughter and think about this question often,” she added. “First, I make sure my daughter knows she is capable of pursuing all her desires. Last year we enjoyed doing Science Olympiad with her school. Together we did experiments and collected data and then analyzed them. Also, at home she sees my husband and I do many home-improvement projects. I think we have to be good examples for young women around us and show them what it looks like to be an engineer. Also, they should be encouraged to tour through manufacturing sites so they can visualize themselves in these environments at a young age.”
For Olds, there are no wrong choices. She believes it’s possible to make any choice the right choice.
“Throughout life there are many choices,” she said. “Where should I go to college? Where should I work? What city should I live in? When should I have kids? I have learned with questions like these, we make the best choice with the information we have at the time. Then once we commit and put our energy into the decision, we make it the best choice.”
Filed Under: Women in Engineering