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20 women making their mark in aerospace and defense

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

Because of governments’ undying devotion to research and development investments that bolster military capabilities, aerospace & defense represents the leading-edge market segment in smart manufacturing.

Within aerospace and defense, women represent the leading edge for diversity in an industry beset by workforce shortages.

Thus, Smart Manufacturing set out to recognize the top 20 women making their mark in A&D smart manufacturing—to put a face on one of the most important workforce segments in all of smart manufacturing.

The 20 women the magazine identified are from private industry, defense, the military and one public-private partnership. They’re making their mark everywhere, from the C-suite to the shop floor, and are experts in Industry 4.0, digital manufacturing, automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, the Internet of Things, predictive analytics and cybersecurity.

They’re also superbly proficient in the basics of aerospace manufacturing—composites, polymers and machining, for starters.

There is, of course, much room for improvement when it comes to diversity in manufacturing, which is rife with opportunities for those with the qualifications and desire.

Jennifer Fielding, one of the women you will read about here, eloquently pointed out that men, alongside women, must play a vital role in championing the hiring of more women in A&D smart manufacturing:

“The struggles that women may face throughout their career should not be theirs alone to try to solve,” she said. “Everyone has a role in creating a more diverse and inclusive aerospace and defense industry.”

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Michelle Roemer
Vice President, Information Technology
Cirrus Aircraft

Numbers have been key in Roemer’s career, at least since she earned her undergraduate accounting degree. In IT, she still focuses on numbers, the “0s” and “1s” that underly data generated by systems that are used to engineer, produce and service products and the ability to leverage that data for successful company performance. “In the next few years, I see the convergence of data from multiple sources, including IoT (Internet of Things), bringing that data into a common platform and applying machine learning to help businesses predict outcomes,” she said. “I believe that predictive analytics and even prescriptive analytics—identifying the best course of action for a given situation—will become a key competitive differentiator in the near future.” At this stage in her illustrious career, Roemer’s focus is less on her own achievements than how she can support and help others to grow. “There is nothing more rewarding to me than working with young talent,” she said.


Tara Thomasson
Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company

As manufacturing undergoes the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Thomasson sees herself as a force for change in an industry that’s notoriously slow to adapt. “We are inherently risk averse, so empowering people to allow themselves to think strategically and embrace the future of intelligent manufacturing has been transformative,” said the second-generation aeronautics professional. It’s her goal to help operations succeed, which is something her dad did as a lifelong McDonnell Douglas/Boeing employee. But her particular mission involves challenging her co-workers to look beyond the day-to-day tactical requirements and fully leverage the power of Industry 4.0. Through advanced analytics, machine learning and automation, Thomasson sees tremendous opportunity for growth in aeronautics through optimized operations. For those following in her footsteps, it’s critical they “take the opportunity to do the hard work, the nasty, dirty work on the floor because that is where you are going to learn the ins and outs of how things really work,” she said. “It is critical that you understand the people, machines and processes or you will likely never be taken seriously.”

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Elisabeth Smith
President and CEO
Acutec Precision Aerospace

When Smith told her dad she wanted to work at Acutec Precision Aerospace, the company Rob Smith helped found, he started succession planning. Elisabeth Smith had thought she would be a labor economist, but her trip to the Paris Air Show in 2005 changed that. She joined Acutec in 2013 and became CEO in 2014. Acutec uses live data and workflows so employees can make better decisions in a high-mix, low-volume manufacturing environment. But she sees a mixed picture for the future of smart manufacturing. She sees “greater barriers to entry, increased cybersecurity risk and more complex and stringent customer requirements,” she said. “On the positive, there are incredible efficiency gains, process capability improvements and workflow streamlining opportunities.” Her advice for anyone starting out in A&D is to seek experience at companies of different sizes. “Don’t just assume that joining a name-brand company is the key to success,” she said. “Often times, smaller companies allow for quicker learning curves and experiences that generate a more visible immediate impact.”

A. Adele Ratcliff
Director, Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment Program |
Office of Industrial Policy | U.S. Department of Defense

Re-establishing the manufacturing trades workforce that has fallen off in recent years is more than an economic growth issue for Ratcliff; it’s critical to national security. “During the establishment of the DoD Manufacturing USA institutes (designed to increase America’s manufacturing competitiveness and promote a robust and sustainable manufacturing R&D infrastructure) you had the feeling you were on the right side of history,” she said. For those who follow in her manufacturing work boots, Ratcliff advises to go anywhere and do anything. “You can’t predict (what) knowledge you gain from a job early on is going to pay dividends both technically or in developing perspective,” she said, adding that her experience as a welder and road builder still come in handy. And for other women? “Believe in yourself,” she said. “Embrace the moments you have to work harder just to be equal—they build resiliency you will need through your career and the ability to block out ‘static’ that seeks to derail you from your goals.”


Chandra Brown
Chicago, Illinois

As head of the nation’s digital manufacturing institute, MxD (Manufacturing times Digital), Brown is spreading the word about Industry 4.0: The U.S. needs more firms, especially small and mid-sized manufacturers, to learn about digital manufacturing solutions. “Helping U.S. manufacturers learn to best deploy digital solutions, as well as teaching them about cybersecurity and how to protect their ever-increasing data streams, has never been more important than it is today, and I am proud to lead an incredible team dedicated to this mission,” she said. Formerly deputy assistant secretary of manufacturing for the Commerce Department, she helped form the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, now called MxD. When she thinks of the future, she sees great opportunity for the U.S. workforce. “The huge leaps taking place on the technical side will only be realized with a new generation of workers equipped with the right skills and the capability to learn and adapt on an ongoing basis,” she said.


Jenette Ramos
Senior VP, Manufacturing, Supply Chain & Operations

Ramos wanted to support herself while in medical school and was fortunate enough to work for Boeing two summers during college where she rotated through various assignments and applied her computer skills. When she graduated, she shelved plans for med school and accepted a full-time post as a facilities engineer at the aerospace firm. “In my first role at Boeing as a facilities engineer, I had the opportunity to support the entire infrastructure at multiple sites,” she said. “I learned a lot and that exposure helped me see the bigger picture, which I have taken with me on my journey.” In her first management position at Boeing, she learned that aligning a team to the mission for the business was necessary but not sufficient: “Every person has an important role on the team, and it surprised me that not everyone felt valued. Leaders help inspire teams to lean in with their hearts and minds so that they can thrive and develop.” In order to be successful, learn how to be a good teammate, she said, and remember that in challenging times, integrity prevails.


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Kathy Olson
Additive Manufacturing Lead Manufacturing Science and Technology Division 
U.S. Army Combat Capabilites Development Command

In her current role, Olson contributed to the writing of the Army’s AM campaign plan and is supporting the Secretary of the Army’s vision for advanced manufacturing. “The campaign plan was written to synchronize AM capabilities and to operationalize AM to enable increased readiness and enhanced warfighting capabilities,” she said. Her long-term goal is to see AM broadly adopted across the Department of Defense (DoD), including supporting production as close as possible to the point of need. “More effective and lethal weapon systems for the future force are enabled by geometrically complex, optimized and lighter-weight designs that can only be accomplished using additive manufacturing,” she said in a defense website article. While on active duty in the Air Force for nine years, she’s currently a civilian DoD employee and has this to say about it: “I get to work toward solutions that are high priority needs, and in doing so I am privileged to assess the best technologies that government, academia and industry have to offer.”


Lori McGrath
Chief Manufacturing Engineer, Aviation Systems Supply Chain 
GE Aviation

Growing up in Southwest Ohio, McGrath was exposed to the A&D industry early on. “But it wasn’t until my first job after college that I realized how excited I was by the cutting-edge research that the industry drove, especially in materials and manufacturing,” she said. That excitement led to her recently being part of the team that developed and industrialized the manufacturing tech for the polymeric matrix composite fan case and ceramic matrix composite high-pressure turbine components for the GEnX jet engine. Her vision for smart manufacturing in A&D includes not only the infrastructure and tools to have an end-to-end Digital Thread but also team members with digital & data analytics skillsets that let them make quick decisions and implement improvements. She wants to create manufacturing engineering organizations and processes that team to routinely deliver new technology introductions with unyielding quality, on cost and on schedule.


Monique Matta
Engineering Manager
Northrop Grumman Corporation

Matta prides herself in using collaboration to master what may be one of the hardest tasks in any career—influencing and leading a team without the authority to make anyone do anything. “I’ve been proud to see lasting examples of the teams that I’ve led continue to carry on a very successful path using the same vision, tools and templates I helped put in place,” she said. Could her passion for efficiency derived from breaking down process flows have contributed to that success? “Just the process of writing down the process and working through the steps helps team members see the big picture, stick to the facts, identify the areas that need help and can often be the platform from which to develop your implementation plan, check your progress and measure yourself based on prior performance trends,” she said. She was founding president of a women’s group that became an employee resource group across the enterprise and led to her receiving the company Sector President’s award.


Dr. Wendy Lin
Consulting Engineer, Polymer Matrix Composites
GE Aviation

Find your passion—and learn what you do not like to do—early in your career, Lin suggested. “There are so many challenges as a minority woman in engineering and managing work/life balance that it would be easy to give up if you don’t have passion for what you do,” she said. Internships, co-ops and early rotational training help young people sort likes and dislikes. Her strategy recently led to heading up a team to introduce automated production for the GE9X composite fan case, which is the largest component on the largest commercial jet engine ever made. “With this introduction, we were able to save weeks of hand labor, as well as significantly improve the part quality,” Lin said. “As part of this effort, we needed to develop a new quality-control test method to quantify tack, which we will be introducing as a new ASTM test standard,” she said. “A quantitative tack measurement for composite prepregs is something the industry has been wanting for the last 30 years.”


Kristen Letelier
Senior Manager Program Management
Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems

Letelier knows the machinery, technology and people in A&D manufacturing need a place to do their work. So, she once led a team of engineers in successfully repurposing and renovating 1960s buildings to accommodate the fabrication of new military aircraft products, ensuring the capital invested would enable the factories to produce for another 50 years. “Most defense contractors are challenged with aging buildings and factories that are in great need of improvement in automation and modernization. Strategizing different ways to modernize, while improving throughput, quality, safety and the needs of a diverse workforce, is professionally and personally rewarding,” she said. She previously worked at Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Letelier is also involved in teaching. She’s a UCLA extension instructor and serves on an advisory board for California Polytechnic State University’s industrial and manufacturing engineering department.


Dr. Jennifer Fielding
Section Chief 
Composite Performance and Applications
Air Force Research Laboratory

Fielding launched and managed America Makes, the first innovation institute in the Manufacturing USA network. “America Makes has made great advancements in deploying AM for our airmen and for growing the AM industry,” she said. In her current position with the Air Force Research Laboratory, she finds the autonomy, mastery and purpose outlined in the book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” “Mastery and autonomy are why I chose AFRL, but it is important to mention why I have stayed at AFRL—purpose,” she said. “It has been my greatest honor to be a part of a team that is delivering outstanding technical capabilities to our airmen and strengthening our nation’s industrial base.” Her experience as a crisis counselor helped her engage others and have difficult talks aimed at finding common ground and resolving conflict. “These are key skills to have for anyone in a leadership role,” she said.


Dr. Xiaomei Fang
Associate Director, Materials & Processes Engineering 
Pratt & Whitney 

Fang said aerospace and defense have opened career opportunities for her in advanced materials and manufacturing. Her passions are to expand composite applications and to reveal the fundamentals of materials and processing. Throughout her enviable career, Fang has worked on various projects in composite material development, processing maturation, and component structural optimization. She recently led an effort to optimize automated surface treatment techniques with cost-effective approaches for structural bonding and to promote repeatable and reliable bond quality on the manufacturing floor. Her advice to others who want to work in aerospace and defense is to keep your feet on the ground, make solid progress—and maintain a healthy balance of work and family. For women in particular, she offers these words of wisdom: “Don’t let stereotypes block your potential, choose your career path based on what you love to do.”


Melanie Lang
Co-Founder and Managing Director

Lang opened the design space for multi-material components with directed energy deposition additive manufacturing. “For example, to achieve desired thermal properties coupled with strength properties for rocket nozzle components, a gradient material strategy with copper alloys and nickel super alloys can be combined into a single part build,” she said. “I want to continue on the AM journey so that high-value components can be manufacturing and repaired locally, on-demand, and with enhanced properties.” Lang’s passion
for art and science led her to engineering, where she can have a creative
career based on scientific principles. For others who want to do what she
does, she advises finding a mentor and networking with people who are
doing the type of work you desire. If you’re a woman, reach out to other
women for help at events, through LinkedIn or groups like Women in 3D
Printing. “My experience has been incredibly positive with women supporting women!” Lang said.

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Dr. Maureen Fang
Technical Product Manager
Lockheed Martin

While pursuing her doctoral degree in mechanical engineering technology in 2015, Fang was chosen the inaugural ASME advanced manufacturing fellow at America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, according to ASME. During her fellowship, she worked for the deputy director of education and workforce, managing the advisory board and roadmap development aimed at creating long-term strategic plans for advancing the next generation of the manufacturing workforce. At Lockheed Martin, she is technical project leader on the submarine sensor and sonar team and manages capital projects, including design, procurement and implementation of new factory cells. Fang is responsible for day-to-day manufacturing operations, including design work instructions, tools, fixtures and test equipment. Prior to joining Lockheed, Fang was a mechanical design and manufacturing engineer at Pratt & Whitney, a position she left to pursue her Ph.D. Her research interests are in design for manufacturing, digital manufacturing, the Digital Thread, model-based definition and advanced manufacturing.

Alexandra B. Cintrón
Automation Engineering Department Manager
Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems

Cintrón was in elementary school when she applied via letter to be a physics engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Yes, NASA. Even though her career path headed in a different direction, she feels that working in aerospace and defense is her dream profession. She and her team pioneered smart manufacturing at Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems in Southern California and also developed an innovative production system that includes cobots (collaborative robots) and humans working side by side. Today, her future aspirations include being an engineering fellow focused on manufacturing and teaching advanced manufacturing at the university level. By then, Cintrón’s vision of data reducing the time of a product’s lifecycle from design to manufacturing and of automation enabling workers to become more efficient should be entrenched manufacturing realities, she said.


Kay Blohowiak
Senior Technical Fellow
Boeing Research and Technology

Blohowiak is a senior tech fellow in materials chemistry for Boeing’s research and technology division. She developed a way of bonding materials that takes much of the time, hazards and cost out of building and repairing products. “One day, we could be building aerospace vehicles without rivets or fasteners,” Blohowiak said. At Boeing, she has focused on problem solving and developing new materials for military, space and commercial programs in the areas of chemical technology, materials selection, adhesive bonding, finishes and corrosion control. Blohowiak has 25 patents and more than 45 publications on issues like adhesive bonding and corrosion control to inorganic polymers, superconductors and coatings development. Her team’s efforts in sol-gel tech have resulted in new technology implementations to solve manufacturing and performance issues, leading to cost savings in production and hazardous materials reduction.


Laurence Bejat
H175 Industrial Programme Officer
Airbus Helicopters 

A second-generation aeronautical industry professional and black belt in lean manufacturing, Béjat got her glider pilot’s license before she could legally drive a car. She helped pioneer digital manufacturing for light helicopters in 2014, a key part of Airbus Helicopters’ new industrial strategy. “You would think that the project was just about technology. But it was a real human adventure and an invaluable experience in leadership, in onboarding people,” she said. She sees smart manufacturing as a way to enhance worker safety via automation, and said it needs to incorporate more sustainable practices, such as recycling, to reduce manufacturing’s carbon footprint. Béjat urges those new to her field to work in different jobs, environments, and even countries to learn and to broaden their points of view. “Diversity and different perspectives always add value to our products, how we design and produce them, and how we interact with our customers who operate our aircraft worldwide,” she said.


Linda Bernardi
CEO & Founder
StraTerra Partners, LLC

Throughout her career, Bernardi has brought disruptive and game-changing technologies to aerospace and defense, as well as other industries. “Everything ‘smart’ is how I would term it,” she said. It started with her work at a think tank involving RFID and industrial-scale Internet of Things (IoT) in the A&D industry. In 2001, she founded ConnecTerra Inc., bringing IoT, RFID and Big Data technologies to A&D, and enabling smart manufacturing, logistics and operations with them. Bernardi’s current passion is what she sees as the beginning of the hyper-connected, smart world. “Soon we will have millions of driverless cars, trucks, drones and unmanned vehicles,” she said. “There is a lot of mindful work to be done to make this all a reality.” In the future, Bernardi sees movement toward more artificial intelligence-enabled systems that can help manufacturers do things better (not just faster). “I see the age when smart truly means intelligence and smart,” Bernardi said. “We are not there yet.”

Executives charting the future path

To find the strongest indicator of gender diversity in the various industrial sectors employing smart manufacturing, one needs look no further than aerospace and defense. Women make up nearly 25% of the 2.5 million-strong work force and occupy a similar portion of executive-level positions, according to a study by Aviation Week.

The historically male-dominated military-industrial complex has taken a female turn.

Currently, four of the top five A&D manufacturing companies are headed by women: Leanne Caret is president and CEO, Boeing Defense, Space and
Security; Marillyn Hewson is chief executive of Lockheed Martin; Phebe Novakovic is chairman and CEO of General Dynamics; and Kathy Warden is chairman, CEO and president of Northrop Grumman.

Interested in what their factories are turning out is another woman: Ellen Lord. She is one of the military’s top weapons buyers. Until 2017, Lord was CEO of Textron Systems.

The list of recent top female leaders in A&D doesn’t stop there. Dianne Chong retired as vice president at Boeing in 2015. And Marion Blakey, former head of the Aerospace Industry Association and the Federal Aviation
Administration, retired in 2018 as president and chief
executive officer of Rolls-Royce North America.

These women are not without precedent in their industry.

Olive Beech took over the leadership of Beechcraft aviation in 1940 and ran it until her nephew became president in 1968. She stayed on as chairman until 1982, according to Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies at Yale University.

“In a 1982 interview for my book The Hero’s Farewell, Beech told me that advancing opportunity for other women in the industry was a special source of pride,” Sonnenfeld wrote in Chief Executive. “To spark sales of some new model planes, she sponsored women pilots going back to 1936 in high-profile successful transcontinental contests against some of the best male pilots.”

Beech’s efforts weren’t sustainable, but her practice of recruiting other women lives on in female A&D executives and in the 20 women profiled in this issue of Smart Manufacturing.

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