Manufacturing Engineer Credits High School Science Olympiad, College Mentor for Her Success in Automotive Industry
It all started with a model bridge… As a young girl, Alysa Darrencamp, now a vehicle operations manufacturing engineer at Ford, entered her school’s Science Olympiad, which sparked her interest in engineering. “Talking with the teacher and understanding the basics of tension, compression and how bridges work really interested me,” she explained.
With research and the volunteer help of a working engineer, Darrencamp built her bridge, which needed to hold four gallons of sand without collapsing. She tested it, made adjustments in the design, rebuilt it, and tested the structure again. She entered the final model and won the contest.
“That blew my mind,” she said. “Taking the research and my understanding of how bridges work, studying what kind of woods serve as good building materials and making corrections to my bridge design—that's what really started me on the engineering career path.”
Darrencamp got her degree in energy engineering and a minor in environmental engineering at Pennsylvania State University. She credits her mentor, Professor Elizabeth Wiggins-Lopez, as steering her interest toward those engineering disciplines. It was during her sophomore year that Wiggins-Lopez pulled aside Darrencamp and two other young women to work on a project to make cities more sustainable.
Penn State was focusing on fuel cell technology at the time, so Darrencamp’s team chose to do a project based on wind power and electrolysis through fuel cells. The project helped boost her confidence; she admits she was intimidated by working with the men in her classes.
“I had a different mind-set,” she said. “I was problem-solving and looking at the big picture where they were focused on smaller, in-the-moment projects. Being introduced to the other women in the program and working with a female professor, seeing where she had gone in her career, really kept me in engineering.”
Today, Darrencamp enjoys having a “variety of minds”—male and female—listening and communicating with each other to solve problems. “I feel the quickest way to find a solution to a problem is through teamwork,” she said. “Because we're all trying to solve the same problem, in the end, everyone is working together.”
One of Darrencamp’s favorite projects at Ford was building the body of the high-strength, aluminum F-150, where everything she had learned about welding a vehicle body was replaced with riveting technology. “I enjoyed taking the same size vehicle, decreasing its weight while still maintaining its safety and durability through using lighter, yet strong body material,” she said.
Her work in fuel cell research gave her the opportunity to apply her manufacturing know-how to a research project at Ford—increasing the performance of vehicle parts under all weather conditions.
“I was hands-on in the factory, seeing how things fit and work together,” Darrencamp explained. “I brought the knowledge of how things are built to my team, and questioned them about some of the parts they were using in development—I didn’t know if they would work properly.”
She developed her own fuel cell design that not only met Ford requirements, but also decreased cost and environmental impacts.
“I used my understanding of what we are capable of manufacturing and how the part is supposed to be installed,” Darrencamp said. “In my design, the cell is very easy to manipulate to satisfy the different needs it would face. My team was a bit leery because it was a completely out-of-the-box development. But once I tested it and they saw its efficiencies, they understood.”
Ford managers understood, too, and Darrencamp’s design solution is now going through the patent process.
Darrencamp’s idea of manufacturing engineering is like having your family by your side. “Everyone in my department has your back and is always willing to help,” she said. “This includes everyone who works in the factories, engineers, operators, mechanics, etc.”
She enjoys giving back to the engineering community through Ford’s Girls Fast Track Races program, where the auto manufacturer teams up with local Girl Scout Councils to teach girls that manufacturing and engineering can be fun. The girls are tasked with engineering a race car, building it and then racing it. Ford engineers such as Darrencamp volunteer their time to help and encourage the girls.
“I believe that the focus on STEM education is extremely important in schools, starting from elementary school and moving through middle and high school,” she notes. “Teaching the common disciplines of STEM teaches you how to make yourself successful in real life.”