Sunday, July 1, 2007

SDM fuels engineer’s move to technical management

By William Taylor, chief engineer for engine integration at Eaton Corporation and SDM alumnus

I graduated from MIT’s System Design and Management Program in 2002. Since that time, my career has taken me to Eaton Corporation in Southfield, Michigan, where I'm chief engineer for engine integration in Eaton's truck division. Although my job and responsibilities have changed a lot over the years, I still use lessons from the SDM program every day.

Before SDM, I was working as an engineer in the Advanced Technologies Group at ArvinMeritor, performing CFD and FEA simulations for advanced products. At that time I was a capable engineer, but I had never been a manager of people. When I returned to the company after the SDM program, I was given oversight of a new R&D program with six to seven engineers.

After a couple years, I moved up to become a director of R&D at ArvinMeritor’s emissions technology group, overseeing the work of around 20 people in our controls group. That was a challenging role, navigating the development of new technologies under the pressure of product deadlines. It really required me to put my MIT education into practice.

In research and development, sometimes the best ideas are hiding in the shadows. There were two engineers with a great product idea—a concept for an emission-control system that they had developed on the side. It was given the green light by top management, and my team was charged with making it into a product.

At first, the two originators were involved in every aspect of the design—it was their baby. But as the team grew, it became clear that these two people couldn't make every decision. I had to increase the team, to 10-15 engineers. And I had to transfer decision-making away from the original two-man team and into a structured teamwide process.

I decomposed the full system down into four key subsystems, using the DSM tool as taught in SDM. Because the system was so new, it required many judgment calls about which components to lump together into subsystems. Here, I relied heavily on principles from MIT's System Architecture course. In the end, the system was broken down into four key subsystems: combustor, air subsystem, fuel subsystem and controls.

Each subsystem had an owner, and each owner had design authority over his piece. With this structure in place, the experts called the shots, and my job became focused on integration. For example, conflicts would arise between the air systems team (who wanted a small, inexpensive air source) and the combustor team (who wanted more air for more complete combustion). My job was to help them work together—and sometimes, to force them to work together.

My SDM experience ultimately taught me how to manage the people and the technology successfully. We were able to create a viable product from the technology, and systems thinking made it happen.

Engineering R&D isn’t the only part of my job that I do better thanks to the SDM program. Tools from SDM also help me interact with customers during the product design process. In my current role at Eaton, we take a strategic view of product design. This means developing a deeper understanding of our customer and tuning our value proposition precisely to their needs.

Ultimately, what's most important is for our engineers to make decisions that drive value for our customers. When my team members understand the customer, they can design and develop products accordingly; I get involved only where necessary. MIT gave me the insights and education to lead a systems-oriented team.

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