Forging Design Engineering Lead
Alcoa Wheel and Transportation Products
Luisa Chinchilla studied mechanical engineering at Ohio Northern University and graduated in 2010. From there, she went to work for what was then Alcoa in the forging design department for the wheels division. This division makes aluminum truck wheels for semi trucks and buses.
She began in the design department and then became the senior designer and is now the forging launch manager. She helps designers introduce their forgings into production and handles much of the communications between the production people and the designers to ensure new products are produced smoothly.
As a teen, Chinchilla liked building things. A wood shop class in high school was a favorite. She enjoyed using all of the machines. At one point, she considered architecture, but when she was a senior, someone from an auto company visited her school. They discussed designing and all the considerations that took place when designing a new car. For example, the visitor discussed how the auto engineers designed new cars to include various conveniences like the elimination of gas caps, and storage for personal affects.
“I thought that was really interesting to think about those issues. I related to finding solutions to different problems that are out there.”
Another influence was a high school chemistry teacher during her junior year who discussed career opportunities. She said, “Girls, if you want a job when you graduate, there will be a demand for female engineers. Really consider that.”
On top of that, engineering runs in Chinchilla’s family. Her parents are systems engineers, her brother has his undergrad in physics, and roughly half of her cousins are engineers. So her choice was not a surprise to her family.
Having grown up around scientific and engineering minds, Chinchilla is familiar with their thought processes so she feels she has not faced many barriers in her career.
“My experience has been welcoming in this male-dominated field. But I recognize that there are still very few women in it. Even though I haven’t had a bad experience I think sometimes it’s hard to find someone that you can fully relate to and that fully understands what you’re thinking. The emotions that go with being a woman and the decisions you make based on some of those emotions, it’s hard to find someone to share those experiences with who understands. Particularly when you’re looking for advice on how to handle a situation, I think that’s something that’s missing for many women engineers. It’s a bit of a barrier because you kind of have to figure it out on your own.
When Chinchilla started at the company, many of her co-workers were on average 25 years older than her. That has changed and now she works with fellow engineers who are her age or younger. That change alone has resulted in fewer barriers for her.
While engineers are good at math and science, people skills can be a challenge. Chinchilla has had her share of working with people. One of the more recent examples involved a product launch that took a forging from one line and reduced the size to handle a smaller load.
“That was challenging,” said Chinchilla, “because you had to take into consideration all of the different parameters and if you’re producing the size or capacity of this process you have to determine how you make it work in this other size.
“My role was to interface with the customers, such as our forging group and other departments in the company. My focus was on how they were affected and how to take some of those issues they might encounter back to design and maybe design around them. For example, if weight is an issue then maybe we can make things lighter or heavier and we can do that in design if it doesn’t affect the product. Or maybe handling the part, can we place things that will make it easier to manipulate?
“For me, the key is communicating with all of these departments and sharing all of the concerns at early stages so that we can design and account for these things as much as possible. And the ones that we can’t design around, then it gives our departments time to start to think about how will they work around these issues that we know will exist.
“Even though we all speak engineering, it’s important to understand the forging process to communicate in the way specific teams understand. Too many technical terms or numbers and you’ve lost your audience. So I often think about how to tailor the message to the audience. For me, that’s one of the biggest engineering challenges–communication. Changing that product to a line that’s smaller was really difficult and good communication was what helped us achieve our goal.”
Many engineers sense that their opinions and views are thought of as uncommon by non-engineers. It can still take some getting used to.
“I think the hardest yet simplest lesson I’ve learned is that not everybody thinks like I do,” says Chinchilla. “It becomes obvious, but it’s really hard to accept it. But it’s critical in communication. You really do have to think about how a person works and how their mind works to sell them on your message or idea. And you really do have to tailor every message you have to what will work best.
There are some people that if I just go in there with data, they’re bored to death. There are some people I work with where if I don’t have enough data, then they don’t believe me. And there are some people where if I have an hour-long meeting that could have been done in 15 minutes, they’re already kind of annoyed because they don’t have that much time. And there are others where if you only give them 15 minutes worth of information, they just feel like you didn’t do your homework.
“So it’s still a lesson I’m trying to learn, but I’ve learned that emotional intelligence is so important, and something that you have to keep working at. I guess advice that I would have for everybody is to work on building their emotional intelligence.
As for encouraging more young women to consider engineering as a career, Chinchilla focuses on ways to show younger women that there are women in the fields that they are interested in. Showing them that there are people that have walked those footsteps before. “Because I think that not everybody wants to be the first or the only.
“I also think it’s important to show young people that there are passionate people in engineering, whether men or women. I think people in other careers get excited. It doesn’t have to be gender specific. You know, just get these young kids excited in engineering. I think they’ll follow.
Chinchilla has a few other observations from her time in the corporate world.
“When you’re passionate about something, it’s easy to forget that it’s business. Sometimes I take things personally, so I would advise young engineers not to take business too personally.
Also, I think women can be both each other’s best and worst advocates. So, be kind to one another because we need to stick together and help each other if we want women to continue to excel in that corporate ladder.