Ron Kennedy is one year into his retirement after more than four decades in the tire industry, and he has this piece of advice to newcomers in the business: Don't be afraid to take opportunities to broaden your horizons.
Kennedy speaks from experience, because that's exactly what he did during a career that included 17 years at Firestone and Bridgestone, 19 years at Hankook and six at the Center for Tire Research.
His specialty was simulation, using finite element modeling. And he was happy doing that until out of the blue Firestone created a corporate factory support group for tire uniformity. He was invited to join the team, which meant leaving his comfort zone in research, traveling to factories and working closely with the staffs there.
"With some fear and trepidation, I said, 'OK, that sounds interesting,' " he said.
Kennedy admits it was quite a culture shock. Coming into the industry he had no idea what a tire really was, and four years later he was out there with products in the factory working on the real thing rather than just theoretical ideas.
"For me it was fairly difficult because I'm somebody who likes to see the path ahead and have everything planned out," he said. "I'm not a real big risk taker. It took a bit, but it worked out really well."
As part of the team, he spent a week or two each month for three years in Firestone factories, working with the plant staff to conduct studies to improve the uniformity of the tires being produced. He also spent time developing experimental techniques and analysis methods, working to get tools in place to help them out.
"I went from theoretical stuff to more practical, hands-on work, throwing tires around a factory and working with components, standing around extruders, building machines, curing presses and inspection machines," he said.
And that gave Kennedy a lesson that may sound elementary, but really was key to helping him understand what a tire is: What goes into them—all the different components—and learning what a reasonable tolerance is.
"When you're doing modeling, you basically have a spec and a drawing, and you assume that's what the tire is," he said. "I really learned what manufacturing tolerances are. When I got back into doing some modeling I had a lot better feel for what's important."
At first there may have been a bit of culture clash, with somebody from the headquarters going into work with local factory staff.
"But I found once we got to know each other, there were no issues," Kennedy said. "It was really a good working relationship. I knew going in the factory people had a lot more experience than me, and I respected that."
It also set him up for the next leg of his career. Once Firestone determined it had enough information on uniformity, Kennedy had earned his doctorate and wanted to get back into research. But that was the mid- to late-1980s, and the company was restructuring.
There was no spot for him in his research group anymore, but he was able to get into an advanced tire development group tasked with working on run-flat tire development. That quickly led to an OE program for the Lincoln Continental, with the team having to figure out everything to make the product a reality.
That was where his years working on modeling and the time he spent in the factory really paid off. "I was able to fit in a lot easier into the process, kind of smoothing things through the design, manufacturing and testing process," he said.
After that he got back into finite element modeling, where he spent the rest of his career until he became a manager at Hankook. And Kennedy knew the time spent on those two projects helped him build more practical simulation tools.
"Now I was not just a pie-in-the-sky researcher trying to push a planning development tool onto an engineer," he said. "I was somebody who had development experience, basically developing a tool that I believed they would be able to use."
He thinks graduate students and those who are early in their careers sometimes are too focused on their specialties, and shouldn't be afraid to take those risks and opportunities to broaden their experiences. "I really liked simulation, but I had six years away from it, and it really did help me when I got back to modeling to be a better producer of tools that could be used."
The best way to facilitate such action is through mentoring efforts, according to Kennedy. "They can look at what their mentor did and see this would a good opportunity for them," he said. "Even as they launch their careers, a mentor can be a lifeline for encouragement."
Another idea is for companies to reward people for making these shifts and gaining that experience, but offering a path back to what they were doing if that was their desire once they gained that cross-training.