Do you ever think about how something is made? Something as simple as a pen comprises many components that add up to a finished product. Think about how the pen’s parts are put together in a way that ensures it is safe and meets quality requirements, such as not leaking. This is manufacturing.
Recently I had the chance to interview Belinda Black about just what it’s like to be a manufacturing engineer. Black is the Director of the Chemical Product Engineering Division at Canon Virginia, Inc. (CVI), Canon’s only manufacturing facility in North America. Her group supports Canon’s automated printer cartridge and toner bottle production lines. The members of her team are product subject-matter experts, who must fully understand this technical area of the business. They are responsible for developing processes and working with suppliers on overall quality, improvements, and opportunities.
Black was happy to share insights about her career, about what led her into the manufacturing industry, and about her efforts to encourage other women to consider such a profession.
Currently, only 14% of engineers are women, so how did you know you wanted to become a mechanical engineer?
I wanted to become a CPA until I took economics in college and realized that I was not on the right path. I took an aptitude test, and the results suggested engineering as a best fit. I switched majors, and one of my engineering professors introduced us to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, which offered several plant tours. Having this opportunity allowed me to see different aspects of manufacturing. I went to Minster Machine (now Nidec Minster), a company that produces metal stamping equipment, and saw some equipment that was a couple of stories tall! I visited Ford and Ball Metal where I saw the metal stamping equipment in action, and that sealed the deal. I never looked back.
Can you describe your experiences as a student? Did you experience any gender bias?
I lived at home and commuted 45 minutes to school. I was fortunate enough to have a work-study position in the Financial Aid office, where I tried to work 20–30 hours a week to help make college affordable. Due to my schedule, I was often unable to participate in study groups and had to figure out the classes on my own.
There were only 6 women students in engineering and roughly 100 men. I had one woman math professor, but there were no women professors in the College of Engineering. My engineering professors were always willing to help and encouraged us to reach out to them at any time (several even provided their phone numbers).
My physics professor was a different story. I went to his office to understand why I was not getting partial credit for test answers. (I had looked at a few of the men’s tests and saw the answers were roughly the same and that they had received partial credit.) He just blamed me for my score. I learned later that he had told a woman the year before me that “women did not belong in engineering.” It is unfortunate that anyone has to deal with gender bias such as this. I knew I needed to do the best I could and just get through, and I did.
What challenges did you encounter during your career, and how did you overcome them?
I really felt like I had to work harder than the men who were my counterparts. I felt that if I made a mistake, especially being the only woman (early in my career), that it would be attributed to my being a woman in engineering rather than to my being human. I put a lot of pressure on myself and worked an excessive number of hours to ensure that I was never dismissed because I was a woman.
What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of?
Having women represented in leadership is critical. I am very proud of being promoted to director of an engineering division at Canon. It is very important to me personally, to be a good leader and role model. In my role, I will continue to advocate for diversity and inclusion initiatives, as these are very near and dear to me. It is very important to me personally, to be a good leader and role model. In my role, I will continue to advocate for diversity and inclusion initiatives, as these are very near and dear to me.
You have been at Canon for 27 years now. Not many people stay at one company that long. How has your career and/or the company evolved over that time?
Throughout my Canon career, I have had the opportunity to work on many different products and projects. Consequently, my interest in my work has been regularly renewed, and I have had opportunities to learn and master new skills. I have also enjoyed having both men and women as allies (my advisors from Japan and my managers), who have recognized my hard work and dedication and who have supported my advancement.
One project that was really special to me was the remanufacturing of a high-speed industrial production copier with over 20,000 parts. I was appointed the technical chief for this project, which enhanced my business acumen and allowed me to develop relationships with members from all divisions in the company.
My favorite assignment was working with one of our sister companies on a two-year project to integrate a medical device company into the Canon family. I was responsible for all of the engineering. I learned about medical devices and how their ISO requirements differ from those of consumer goods. Being selected to support this initiative was such an honor. The opportunity supported my professional growth and boosted my confidence.
After supporting so many different Canon manufacturing businesses through the years, I moved to my current assignment as the Director of Chemical Product Engineering. Here, I am responsible for the start-up and for the sustainability of engineering functions for the manufacturing of printer cartridges and toner bottles. My team serves as subject matter experts for cartridge and toner products, both at the individual part level and at the finished good level, for existing and new product launches. First Pass Yield (a measurement of quality units produced as a percentage of total units) is a high priority, so we work with the parts and assembly processes to accomplish maximum productivity. Other key areas of focus are engaging our suppliers developing innovative and cost-effective engineering solutions for the overall process.
What about the Canon culture has kept you engaged and satisfied?
I like the Canon corporate philosophy of kyosei—living and working together for the common good. This is a positive affirmation of the type of company and culture we maintain. One example of this practice is Canon’s involvement and support of Christopher Newport University’s Physics, Computer Science, and Engineering Mentor/Mentee program. I have had the pleasure of being a part of this program for six years. This voluntary program aims to increase the number of women in STEM by pairing students with a professional who can provide a real-world perspective.
What is your leadership philosophy?
I lean toward a solution-based, learning leadership. I allow employees I’ve hired to work somewhat independently toward solutions to issues, while I provide advice and mentoring. The relationships that you develop are so vital. Your teammates are the most important asset you have; taking the time to mentor and develop them brings endless rewards for both you and the company. It is so rewarding to see someone you onboarded grow and advance.
Thirty-two percent of women who go into STEM switch majors, and 30% of women who earn an engineering degree aren’t still in engineering after 20 years. Why do you think that is?
I think there are a number of reasons women leave engineering. There are still biases present in the professional world. Many women exit the work force to be caregivers. This has always been an issue, but it was made more visible with Covid. I think one of the biggest factors is the lack of representation of women in higher-level positions. Women need to see role models to believe that they can succeed in engineering and manufacturing.
How can we engage more women in the fields of engineering and manufacturing? What advice would you give other women exploring these careers?
I think sometimes that we (women) can be our own worst enemy, when we subscribe to similar stereotypes and biases that our men counterparts might have. We need to make a conscious effort to be there to support and encourage one another. I am grateful to have the opportunity to highlight my experiences in manufacturing and hope that my story will motivate others to consider a career in manufacturing.
Georgina To’a Salazar, PhD, works to create innovative solutions in science communication, research, and policy. With a BS in chemical engineering from Stanford University and a PhD in biomedical engineering from the University of California, Irvine, Dr. Salazar has fulfilled her dream of exploring the world, having taken research positions in Singapore and Japan before returning to the United States to focus on science communication at Takara Bio USA, Inc.
This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.