Laura Mahany doesn’t just serve as a plant manager at Air Liquide. She’s also mentoring women within the organization and recruiting top engineers to increase female presence in manufacturing.
“I usually talk about sitting at a desk all day,” she says. “In manufacturing, you almost never do that.”
When she speaks to other young women on college campuses, she stresses the collaborative environments that manufacturing offers and the opportunities to interact with operators and technicians thatmake her work more interesting and engaging. From these conversations, she’s learned sustainability is an important issue for young people, who have become more vocal about being part of a grand environmental solution. And she has found that one of the biggest challenges for recruiting new manufacturers is simply a lack of visibility.
“When you talk to a child, they always know what a doctor does or a teacher does because they interact with those people,” Laura says. “But it’s not very often that they get to interact with engineers or visit a manufacturing plant.”
While in college, Laura provided some of those interactions herself as a mentor to underprivileged kids learning math and science. Each session involved experiments centered around different subjects and activities, from building roller coasters to making ice cream to using liquid nitrogen. By changing different elements of the experiments and studying how changes affect outcomes, Laura helped drive home scientific concepts – and gave kids a real-life example of what manufacturers do.
“Manufacturing is just a big word to them,” she says. “We need to make it real.”
Laura has learned firsthand how real manufacturing challenges can be. In 2017, she was tasked with preserving operations at her plant in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, and although she and her team evacuated during the hurricane itself, they returned to a scene that she calls “something out of a zombie apocalypse.” Because her plant was critical to the safety of the community – it produced nitrogen, which other industries use to prevent the release of dangerous chemicals – she had to restore operations quickly, even before the local government had given the all-clear for residents to return.
“We had to collaborate with other industries to get what we needed, like cooling water and electricity,” she says. “Luckily, I had good relationships with people at other companies – it really made such cooperation possible.”
Laura credits college internships with convincing her that she was destined for a career in manufacturing. Although she had always had an aptitude for math and science – as a child, she took part in academic competitions to improve her skills – a college program for women in engineering made the larger engineering program feel more approachable and drew her into more applied opportunities.
“I realized I liked the more hands-on work of manufacturing – the direct interaction with the meat of a business,” Laura says. “I liked how every day was different, fast paced, challenging.”
In September 2018, the National Association of Manufacturers acquired the Manufacturing Leadership Council, an association for manufacturing executives that is dedicated to helping the industry transition to the digital era. Nearly one year later, the MLC wraps up its 15th Anniversary Manufacturing Leadership Summit and continues to provide its members with programs and services around digitization.
MLC’s Co-Founder, Vice President and Executive Director David R. Brousell shares the groundbreaking work of the organization and why it matters to manufacturers today.
What is the Manufacturing Leadership Council?
The MLC is designed to help senior manufacturing executives and emerging leaders define and shape a better future for themselves, their organizations and the industry at large by focusing on the intersection of critical business and technology issues that will drive growth today and in the future. We do live events like conferences; we do plant tours that enable members to see firsthand how different companies are implementing the latest digital technologies; and we publish in-depth articles that focus on best practices and cutting-edge ideas on the use of technologies and the leadership requirements of the digital age.
How is leadership changing in the digital age?
It’s changing in some very important ways. There’s a whole new layer of competency that has to be added to the traditional functions of leadership. We call this “digital acumen,” which has to do with understanding the potential of advanced technologies like analytics, artificial intelligence, collaborative robotics, 3D printing and other technologies. It’s not just improving efficiencies, but also offering new business models, ways of doing things and services.
This new era in manufacturing requires leaders to manage organizations that are flatter and more collaborative, with more and more employees having the benefit of information at their fingertips. Managing in prior years was around a top-down structure. That doesn’t cut it in the digital age.
What benefit do companies get from being a part of this group?
The MLC presents the opportunity to be part of a community that is collectively sharing ideas, insights and best practices to as the industry continues its radical transition. The truth is, you can’t do this alone as a company. You can’t make this transition to the digital era by yourself. You need to be with other companies, to learn from them, to learn what’s possible, to see what works and what may not work well in your company and to form that bond. It’s a tremendous learning experience.
What does the future look like for manufacturing—and how does the Manufacturing Leadership Council fit in?
The future looks very, very bright for manufacturing. We’re going to increase efficiency and produce products that satisfy personalized needs—everything from cars to medicine. We’re going to be able to have better quality and create jobs that are fulfilling, exciting and intellectually stimulating. The extent of innovation happening right now in manufacturing is mind-blowing.
But this is not an easy transition. The future offers tremendous opportunities, but only if we make the transition industry-wide. If we’re able to do that, not only will individual companies be more successful globally, but the U.S. manufacturing industry as a whole will continue to lead the world. There’s a lot at stake for manufacturers. That’s why the partnership between the Manufacturing Leadership Council and the NAM is so important.