Sarah Walter, Applications Engineer, Encoder Products Company
M.S. Electrical Engineering – University of Colorado Boulder
B.S. Electrical Engineering – University of Portland
What first drew you to engineering?
I grew up in rural north Idaho, and I was recruited to the University of Portland for a golf scholarship. Growing up, I’d always been a tinkerer; I loved to take things apart, figure out how they worked, and fix them. When I was choosing my major, it was between art and engineering, but I wanted to pursue a stable career, so I chose engineering.
I enjoyed my undergrad experience so much, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in a more specialized area of electrical engineering. Also, since I graduated at a time when there was an economic dip, I knew I wasn’t going to miss out on any professional opportunities.
I was accepted to several graduate programs, but I chose Colorado University, Boulder, where I pursued a degree in a combined program with electrical engineering and physics.
It was the right move. I thoroughly enjoyed the research I did and even writing my thesis.
I learned the fundamentals of optics and lasers and how to build table-top optical test environments, with my work focused on single-wavelength applications. Many of my fellow students were working on their PhDs, but I was pursuing a shorter track to achieve a master’s degree and join the working world. Working alongside a variety of students, however, was a valuable experience to learn about many different types of research and cutting-edge science and technology.
After graduating with my master’s degree, I was recruited to an R&D company called CDM Optics in Boulder. After a few years of working there, the company was purchased by a corporation that focused on consumer cell phone camera lenses. By that time, I had shifted to the manufacturing side of engineering, rather than the R&D side. When the corporation decided to relocate offices, I was offered a transfer to California but I wasn’t ready to leave Colorado at that point. Realizing I was ready to come home to North Idaho, I found a position in Technical Sales at Encoder Products Company, where I had interned while in college.
Talk about the culture at your company. What makes it inclusive or supportive of women in engineering and automation?
My department is very inclusive of women, and I and my female colleagues are treated as equals with our male colleagues. Our input is considered and valued, and there is a definite sense of teamwork among the entire engineering group. Right now, my job is focused on customers’ applications, which means I get to help other engineers find the right encoder for their unique applications when a standard off-the-shelf encoder doesn’t meet the specifications for that particular motion control application.
Describe your biggest engineering challenge. How did you conquer it or resolve it, or what was the outcome?
My biggest engineering challenges have been helping customers who need custom solutions. There are so many different considerations when designing industrial automation applications, often the customers themselves aren’t sure exactly what they’re looking for in a motion feedback device. I have to pull back from an encoder-view of the application to get an eagle-eye view of the application. For instance, if a customer tells me, “We need labels applied to bottles,” I need to understand where in the process those labels are applied, and I need all the specs on the application – how fast the conveyor belt is moving, how large the bottles are, what the speed of the application is, will the encoder be subject to washdown, or extreme environments, etc. – to determine what the best encoder solution is for that application. Working in Customer Applications, only rarely do we talk to a design engineer who can tell us, “I need a 1.5” shaft encoder that offers a resolution of 10,000 CPR, and it has to have an IP65 seal.” Those calls generally go to our Sales Engineers. It’s incredibly satisfying to get the “weird ones” and find those customers the encoder that is going to provide reliable motion feedback, day in, day out. And that’s what Encoder Products Company offers: a high-quality product with customer service to back it up. That’s why I enjoy my job so much – I get to help fellow engineers solve problems.
Filed Under: Women in Engineering