When Dianne Chong, MM ’98, sees a factory scene on TV with machinists hard at work, she’ll sometimes turn to her husband and say, “I bet they can 3D print that now.”
After a nearly 30-year career in manufacturing, that’s how the former Boeing executive and president-elect of the SME (formerly the Society of Manufacturing Engineers) sees the world.
“Fundamentally, manufacturing is about making things,” Chong says. “Look around your room. You can ask, ‘How is this made?’ about anything. It doesn’t matter what you’re looking at.”
But Chong didn’t always see the world that way. She thought she might be a
doctor — even earning a master’s in physiology at the University of Illinois Chicago, intending to go to medical school — until a graduate school adviser told her to try materials engineering.
“I never looked back.”
In 2015 Chong retired as the vice president of Boeing’s Research and Technology operation. She’d joined the company thinking she’d work on materials research. “Everyone went into the field wanting to make something cool that they could point to on a product, such as ‘I did the materials work for the F-18!’”
Cutting-edge, high-tech airplanes? It does sound fun.
When Chong recounts her most fond memories, though, they have almost nothing to do with materials and everything to do with people. She recalls rallying a Seattle team to safely deliver the 787, which was two years behind schedule when she arrived, or overseeing a massive reorganization that was initiated at her request. She brought together 2,500 people across 10 sites to form the Research and Technology organization.
Chong was prepared to take on such tasks later in her career because of an earlier job at McDonnell Douglas, where she first worked in manufacturing and production. McDonnell Douglas also sent her to WashU for a master’s degree in manufacturing management, which allowed her to consider manufacturing in an academic context. “It was engineering,” she says, “but at the same time, the business side was very well taught.”
While in St. Louis, Chong hosted workshops for women interested in math and science careers. She still likes to talk with people about their careers. She opens by asking people if they’re doing what they set out to do. Are they doing what they love? People usually smile and nod, she says, but the answer is almost always “no.”
What about her? She studied medicine but was one of the inaugural inductees in the Women in Manufacturing Hall of Fame. She has a business degree and has worked on space technology. Did Chong do what she loved?
“Yes, yes I did,” she says. “I kept getting newer opportunities” — then she bursts into laughter — “that allowed me to love something else.”