The Future is Automation

As an undergraduate student studying chemistry at Dominican University, Elizabeth Foot attended monthly Women in STEM meetings in which various successful women working in STEM fields shared their stories. At the first meeting, the speaker was an engineer with a startup that converted brewing byproducts into baking flour. 

Foot says, “It just inspired me and made me realize, ‘Wow, this is what engineers do?’ They make things better, convert waste into useful products, they do big things to make the world function better, improve lives, and drive sustainability….This is what I want to do.”

As she was almost done with her chemistry degree, Foot started looking for master’s programs in chemical engineering and heard about Illinois Institute of Technology from a friend who was in the Dominican/Illinois Tech Joint Engineering program

Coming from a non-engineering background, Foot says she was looking for a smaller school.

“I really wanted to have a more personalized experience, and I really think it helped me flourish. I got to spend a lot of one-on-one time with professors and built a lot of good relationships,” she says.

At the Society of Women Engineers’ (SWE) annual career fair, Foot connected with a representative for Solenis, and shortly after received an offer to work for the company as an industrial water treatment technical sales intern. In this role, she did a range of work including data collection and analysis, site visits, and giving training presentations to operators. 

“It was great for networking, and it also really opened my eyes to what goes into the water treatment process and why it is so important in manufacturing processes. I really enjoyed learning what that process looked like, and I became passionate about helping water-intensive businesses use water more efficiently in their manufacturing operations. I also didn’t just sit behind a desk all day. I was out there walking around, getting my hands dirty and learning from all the technicians,” she says. “It was a really good experience, and I built a lot of positive relationships.”

While Solenis was an option for Foot post-graduation, she ultimately decided she wanted to stay in the greater Chicago area and focus her job search on Chicago-based roles. 

“I had barely begun my job search when Procter & Gamble wanted to interview me, and I ended up receiving an offer from them,” she says. “I never originally saw myself working in automation, but it seemed really interesting to me, and given the direction that society is going, I felt it was a great opportunity.”

Foot works as an automation process engineer in the autonomous guided vehicle (AGV) department at a recently established Procter & Gamble fulfillment center in the greater Chicago area, one of a handful using AGVs to autonomously move pallets of product around the warehouse. 

“Much of the productivity at our site depends on the AGVs,” says Foot. “I do deep data diving, manipulation, and visualization to figure out what our top losses are within the operation and work with my team to establish action plans to reduce them. I spend a lot of my time working and communicating with our technicians and vendors to help execute the work that needs to be done to get us to our target.”

Foot says truly understanding the problem means more than just looking at the data. It also requires spending time out on the floor to actually observe the issue and keeping open lines of communication with the technicians and vendors who work directly with the AGVs. 

Foot says she finds herself appreciating the well-rounded skill set that she received in her engineering degree and internship: self-sufficiency, collaborative problem-solving, perseverance, communication, and building trusted relationships with cross-functional teams. 

“Engineering taught me how to identify problems as opportunities and really dig in deep to find solutions. In the workplace, your boss doesn’t have an answer key in her desk,” she says. “Instead of a problem solver, I like to say I am a solution digger. You just keep digging until you get somewhere. It’s rarely going to be perfect, and there’s never a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s always a continuous improvement environment. You make data-driven decisions, you learn from them, and you keep improving.”

She says she often leans on skills she learned in an entrepreneurship and IP management course taught by Adjunct Faculty Robert Anderson at Illinois Tech. 

“Anderson had a bunch of real-world experience and gave us a lot of good real-world advice. It helped me get outside of my math and science bubble,” she says. “He became a mentor to me.”

Foot says she enjoys doing work on a problem that she knows directly impacts people’s lives.

“With automation, we’re getting our customers’ products to them faster and on time, and those products are things that people count on like getting toothpaste, paper towels, or laundry detergent at the grocery store,” she says. “There are a lot of opportunities for people with engineering degrees. It has opened a lot of doors for me, and I am excited to continue learning new skills and applying them in ways that positively impact people’s lives.”

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