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Interview with Dr. DeeDee Smith, Mobility Marketing Manager and eMotors Global Lead, Solvay Materials 

Interview with Dr. DeeDee Smith, Mobility Marketing Manager and eMotors Global Lead, Solvay Materials 

Thank you, DeeDee, for joining us for this interview today. It’s really a pleasure to have you and to hear your thoughts and to share your experience with our readers.

We got in contact with you through our contacts from the CWIEME event that we both visited this May. So can you tell us a little bit about how your collaboration with CWIEME started?

DeeDee Smith: The first time that we attended the CWIEME show was two years ago, and we found it by looking for trade shows for coil winding. Solvay had never attended the show before, so it was our first experience. I started interacting with the organizers asking about the ability to talk about some of our products. We had such an awesome first year and they were extremely helpful, everything from getting the booth ready to helping us prepare for the talk that we were giving and then coming by and checking on us making sure that the show was going well and that we were getting what we wanted out of it. I would have to say that that first show really opened our eyes to how large CWIEME is and that it really encompasses the entire supply chain around coil winding.

This year I’ve  been a bit more involved with the group. I participated in the education panel, which was, I think, the first one that they have ever had. That was a different experience, not just interacting with customers, but now also interacting with students and really understanding what is driving them, so we can tap into that next generation talent pool.

You are currently working as an e-mobility Marketing Manager at Solvay Materials, but you also have a background in chemistry. Can you please tell us how did your unique expertise contribute to your success in the field of e-mobility? Because this is not really the typical way.

DS: I have a PhD in organic chemistry from Northwestern University in Chicago, IL. And there I was doing something completely different. I was studying copolymers for drug delivery. It was very -interdisiplinary work. I worked with the Children’s Hospital downtown. I would synthesize drug-containing monomers, polymerize them and make the copolymers, and then the nanoparticles. Then I would give      them to my collaborators for testing. I found I was really good at crossing these science boundaries, being able to communicate what I was doing from a chemistry standpoint to doctors and clinicians, and then also taking their work to conferences and being able to explain to other chemists the impact of the chemistry that I was doing in these lab settings. I found that having that ability to talk, cross science talk, was really beneficial. It was also beneficial when I did my post-doctorate and I was writing grants and trying to get funding, being able to lay out that story in a way that anybody could understand it, regardless of what their background was.      

After my postdoc, I decided that I really wanted to get into industry and see the impacts of what I was doing on a day to day basis in the market. Therefore, I joined Solvay in 2011. I joined one of their advanced chemistry groups. We were looking at technologies that weren’t to be developed for another 15 to 20 years. After a couple of years of doing that, I felt like I wasn’t really close enough to the customer or the business. I wanted to understand how we were making money and what was really driving our business and our customers. I moved into a more business-facing group doing product development. I was still in R&D, but in a position that allowed me to interface more with our customers. I started traveling with our front line folks, going directly to customers and talking with them and using that background of explaining things in a way that everybody can understand to explain to our customer how our products really worked and what we were doing chemically to make them work in their applications.

This transition has brought about a wave of new e-motor innovations. You have a lot of brilliant people in this industry that are coming up with incredible new designs, and those new designs are really pushing the performance boundaries of incumbent materials.

Dr. DeeDee Smith

After a couple of years, I decided to make a very large leap and leave R&D and go to the commercial side of our business. I started in sales development where I was actually owning customer accounts and driving business development at those customers before moving into this market managing position. But I would say that the skills that I developed early on, being able to talk to people regardless of what their background was and explain complex concepts, has made me successful in this job. Those early lessons in communication skills and talking across disiplines to     explain things in a way that they understand has been beneficial.

You said that you were developing solutions that were really advanced, really far in the future. And what’s a really big topic currently with the development of technology is sustainability. As the transition to e-mobility is actually a pivotal moment in the automotive industry, how do you envision the future of e-mobility and what role does Solvay play in shaping this future through the e-motor solutions?

DS: I would say that this is a super exciting time, being able to be in the position that I’m in today, in this moment where you’re seeing this mass transition to e-mobility, I feel very fortunate. For me, this transition has brought about a wave of new e-motor innovations. You have a lot of brilliant people in this industry that are coming up with incredible new designs, and those new designs are really pushing the performance boundaries of incumbent materials. And so I see our role as making the impossible possible, opening up the design space for engineers, allowing them to have materials that are going to help them enable cleaner, safer and more energy efficient mobility.

You actually answered two of my questions, because my next one was the one regarding the approaches driving the adoption of sustainable and efficient technologies in electric vehicle industry. Do you have anything to add to this?

DS: One of the things that makes specialty polymers really great is that we have one of the broadest portfolios of highly engineered thermoplastics in the industry. That comes with some great pros, but it also comes with some cons. One of the advantages is that we have the ability to pick the right material for the right application. Materials that are going to balance performance and economics. But when you look at our portfolio and you see thousands of grades of material, it can be very overwhelming to know where to even start to select the right material. A few years ago, our marketing decided that we were going to shift from being product-focused to being market-focused, and more specifically for automotive, systems-focused. We wanted to understand the systems and the value our materials can bring to those systems. For eMotors specifically, that meant working with our internal experts to identify solutions for applications where we thought we could add value. But you have to prove that value to your customer and speak their language.

For example, eMotor engineers, they probably don’t care about the glass transition temperature of a polymer, or they could be unsure what that particular property means for their system. But what they would care about is having a material that’s going to maintain electrical properties after aging, so they don’t have to design around property drops.  So we translate the materials attributes from a polymer scientist viewpoint, to an engineering attribute and an engineers viewpoint. It’s a little bit of that data storytelling coupled with being able to talk between different science languages and knowing who your audience is.

Incorporating sustainability is something that is a core value at Solvay. It’s in everything that we do, it’s not an afterthought. When we’re in there talking to engineers about the products that are going to provide value in their applications, we’re also talking with them at the same time about the sustainability profile of that product. We have that generated in all of our content. Solvay has made large efforts holistically across our businesses to enhance our sustainability, we’ve done things like use solar energy to power our plants, reduce the amount of freshwater intake, reduce the amount of trash that we’re generating. All of that is contributing to lowering the global warming potential of our products. We’re also very open with our customers about what the GWP of our products are and how we calculate these numbers.

Again, sustainability is baked into every conversation. It’s not something that we’re discussing separately. We’re discussing in the same conversations as how these products bring  value, because that’s a part of the value.

Can you share with us something about the challenges that you have encountered while positioning Solvay Solutions in the market and how have you effectively addressed these challenges to maintain a competitive edge?

DS: Automotive is generally a very conservative market, very cost-conscious industry. Our competitors in this space have had decades servicing adjacent industries like industrial motors, and they have proven track records of performance. Things like insulation material on your magnet wire, insulation for slot liners, those products have been known for some 50 plus years. They’ve worked for these lower voltage, lower performing motors. It’s easy to thing for an engineer to start with a known solution that works.

However, many of the applications that we’re targeting, we’re coming at it from a position of an entirely new material, either a new material or a new form, new process technologies to apply that material. This amount of change requires a lot of convincing, and everybody is moving very quickly in this industry. You’ve got to tap into the fact that right now is really ripe for innovation. That brings up a related challenge. Many of the standards and test methods that were written around incumbent materials were written for those materials. Because our materials are so different, again, in their form, in their chemistries, or in the process technologies, sometimes those standards just don’t apply or they don’t make sense.

Over the last three years, we’ve taken an approach of, again, understanding the system. We’ve developed an entirely new group within Solvay called Application Development Labs. We have a team that is focused entirely on electrification. That team is composed of experts we’ve hired who previously designed e-motors for OEMs and tier ones, who are electrical engineers, people that really understand the requirements and these systems. When we pair those experts with our material experts internally the result is amazing.  The type of data that we are able to generate clearly demonstrates the value that our materials can bring to an application, not only in the language that the systems engineer can understand, but also using the same tests and methods they are familiar with.

You really have to go after positions where it’s going to foster that passion and that interest in you and really give you the skills that will enable you to tackle whatever the new and next challenge is going to be.

Dr. DeeDee Smith

You recently presented on Solvay’s solution Ketaspire® PEEK. Could you maybe tell us a little bit about this product and its significance?

DS: Ketaspire® PEEK has been around for a very long time. It’s been traditionally used for an automotive for bearing cages and thrust washers and internal combustion engines. But now that we’re moving into e-mobility, we’re thinking of, again, how do we apply this old material to these new applications and solutions? What we found is that PEEK is a very good insulating material, especially on magnet wire. We partnered almost a decade ago with a magnet wire supplier to really start producing this new innovation of extruded thermoplastics onto magnet wire. This product has a proven track record now of having excellent electrical performance, chemical resistance, and a really good balance of mechanical properties that can enable new and interesting winding and bending profiles and technologies in the space of coil winding.

The new product that we introduced at CWIEME was the Ketaspire® PKT-857. It’s been designed so that it can be extruded directly onto the copper wire without the need for additional materials or processing to help that material adhere to that copper. Removing these additional steps will help reduce process complexity, processing costs when making the magnet wire and hopefully make it more accessible in the takeover place.

How important do you consider such events as CWIEME in this industry for fostering collaboration and knowledge sharing among different experts?

DS: CWIEME has become one of my favorite shows here in the last couple of years. There is no other show that I know of that is bringing so many players from the value chain together in one place. It’s like most shows and the fact that you get to meet with your customers, maybe you get some new leads for new customers, but unlike other shows, you also get to start to foster relationships with people in the value chain, for example wquipment suppliers that my customers might interface with, and they would need to use my materials in their equipment. Then we can work together to demonstrate to our joint customers that the combination of their process technology and our materials is going to give them this new great innovation to help them reach the power and efficiency in their email are looking for. It also helps us because you have people there that are looking at new testing equipment and methods. We’re also trying to figure out what are the latest and greatest testing methods and testing equipment so that we can generate that data that’s going to be crucial for that storytelling to convince our customers to use these materials.

These types of relationships that you form during these shows, while they’re not directly a sale, really enable that customer to make that decision and really take the leap and use that material.

This interview that you’re giving now is for the Women in Power Systems brand, which aims to inspire and empower all women in the energy and technology sectors. What advice would you offer to young women pursuing a career in these fields and particularly to those who may be interested in driving innovation and sustainability like yourself, maybe even also in your part of the industry?

DS: The first piece of advice is to follow your interests, and not a career path. We’re in an era where change is the only constant, right? Companies change and reorganize every few years. Positions that existed previously may not exist in a few years, or there may be new positions that you never even thought of. I think it’s really more now so than ever before. You can’t chase a title, right? You really have to go after positions where it’s going to foster that passion and that interest in you and really give you the skills that will enable you to tackle whatever the new and next challenge is going to be.

I would also tell young women to find good mentors and find good sponsors, and to know the difference between the two. I think mentoring is great, and you can find mentors both inside your company and outside your company. But you need to find sponsors within your organization that you can get to know and they can get to know you and really start advocating on your behalf.

My last piece of advice is to voice what you want. Again, going back to the fact that titles change, positions change. If you’re not telling people what it is that you want and you’re not putting it out there, then they’re not going to know. Be bold. Even if the position you want doesn’t exist, say, I would like a position that looks like X, Y and Z, and you never know what might happen.

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Find more inspirational interviews and articles in our September 2023 issue of Women in Power Systems.