Bright ideas • Viewpoints

Lessons from the Front Lines of Manufacturing: Ford, Honeywell, and My Journey to Bright Machines

By Caroline Pan, CMO, Bright Machines

When I first joined Ford Motor Company in the mid-90s, bright-eyed and freshly armed with a Mechanical Engineering degree from MIT, I had no idea of the career path and personal journey that first foray into the world of manufacturing would take me.  Over the past 25+ years, I’ve witnessed incredible transformations in both the high-tech and industrial manufacturing realms.  But while talk of “Industry 4.0” and “Factory of the Future” has been part of our lexicon for over a decade, it has never quite seemed to fully materialize – until now.

Walking the (Manufacturing) Line

In those early, formative years at Ford, I experienced the vast complexity of designing and building a vehicle for mass production.  My first time seeing an assembly line was when I joined the team responsible for launching the original 1998 Lincoln Navigator SUV.  At Wayne Assembly Plant, I walked the line, supervising union workers, inspecting part quality and fit and finish, and tracking assembly time and throughput.  I saw the intricate orchestration of events that had to occur for the right parts to come together on the factory floor and the challenges union workers faced when the parts I designed turned out to be more difficult than expected to assemble. 

Later, when I moved into business planning and strategy, I grappled with issues like managing capacity utilization across Ford’s network of manufacturing facilities as consumer demand and tastes shifted.  I learned how these plants were essentially “purpose-built”: designed for high volume, high throughput production of specific vehicle models, and nowhere near flexible enough to pivot to another vehicle type without an extensive overhaul.

B2B Marketing at a Technology Powerhouse

Following my time at Ford, I returned to Boston and graduated with my MBA degree in the midst of the Dot-Com boom and bust.  Undeterred, I moved to Silicon Valley and joined Intel to cut my teeth in B2B marketing at a global technology leader.  I spent 11 years at Intel, moving through various marketing, strategy, and general management roles.  A true highlight was launching the first Intel Centrino platform in 2003 – a breakthrough technical innovation around which we wrapped a $300M marketing campaign that ushered in a new era of mobile computing and remote work.  At Intel, I learned the power of ecosystem enabling, the value of partner marketing, and how to drive thought leadership and category creation even as a component provider in a much broader value chain.

The China Experience

My time working as an expat in China – first with Intel, then Hewlett-Packard, and finally Honeywell – was yet another transformative experience.  I became deeply immersed in the nuances of U.S.-China trade, the implications for global manufacturing companies operating in China and abroad, the impact of shifting supply chains, and how to “localize” in a world where scale and reach mattered.  I wrote a research paper entitled “Foreign Tech Companies: Alive in the Bitter Sea” and spoke at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council event in Tokyo on this subject in 2017.

After 13 years in China, I finally repatriated back to the U.S. to become head of Global Marketing at Honeywell.  I established their first-ever Corporate Marketing organization, hired their first Agency of Record, spearheaded a new master brand activation campaign, and laid the groundwork for a massive digital marketing transformation. 

Global Supply Chains Turned Upside Down

My last role at Honeywell prior to Bright Machines was leading Strategy, Innovation, and Ventures for Honeywell Safety & Productivity Solutions (SPS), which focuses heavily on robotics, warehouse automation, and supply chain logistics.  SPS is also the Honeywell division that produces PPE (and one of the few American manufacturers of N95 masks).  When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, demand for N95 masks was vastly outstripping capacity.  For the first time, Honeywell had to make the tough decision of whether to invest in mask production outside of China.  Tiger teams worked around the clock to stand up factories in Rhode Island and Arizona (and later, Europe).  It showed us the fragility of global manufacturing, not to mention the growing importance of a distributed factory network and supply chain resiliency.

A Bright Future Ahead

What fascinated me most about Bright Machines is the idea that you can apply software design principles, coupled with computer vision, machine learning, 3D simulation, and adaptive robotics, to solve these age-old problems.  Suddenly, factories become flexible.  Production becomes distributed.  Automation becomes intelligent.  And manufacturing companies don’t need to choose between scale and agility.

Although only three years old, Bright Machines has done a remarkable job of penetrating the enormous, $250B industrial automation market with its uniquely differentiated solution.  It is now serving over 60 global brands, covering essential industries such as network infrastructure, data centers, automotive, consumer products, medical devices, and industrial equipment.  It has attracted an impressive group of industry veterans and best-in-class engineers across multiple disciplines; and operates as a truly global company, with R&D centers in the U.S. and Israel and additional field operations in Mexico, China, and Poland. 

For me, joining Bright Machines felt like a very natural next step in my professional journey.  Here, I have the opportunity to combine my experiences across the high-tech and industrial worlds, leverage what I learned while working at some of the most established leaders in their industries, and recreate the magic of those iconic brands.  I truly believe that Bright Machines has the potential to completely reshape the world of manufacturing as we know it today.  I am looking forward to being a part of this story and the very Bright future that lies ahead.     


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