2016 Distinguished Achievement Award: Q&A with Frank Sanders

// Mechanical Engineering, Industrial & Systems Engineering

Tags: alumni, Engineers' Day, Frank Sanders, manufacturing systems engineering, ME

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Frank Sanders

Vice President, Technology and Manufacturing Group, and Director, Global Systems Supply Chain and Technology Enabling, Intel Corp.; MSMSE ’92 (BSME ’89, University of Illinois; MBA ’07, Northwestern University)

Recipient of the 2016 College of Engineering Distinguished Achievement Award, Nov. 11, 2016.


Why did you choose to attend college at UW-Madison?

Interestingly, I was a mechanical engineer as an undergrad and through my internships, I did work in mechanical design. I recognized that based on my personality, I enjoyed working with people and the design function didn’t allow enough of that. I tried a technical marketing role with IBM; it was too far at the opposite end of the spectrum, and I thought manufacturing would allow me to combine things from a technology standpoint, robotics, automation, and an area that allowed more people interaction. At the time, those programs weren’t very prevalent, and I saw that Wisconsin was one of a few universities that offered manufacturing systems engineering, and was rated as one of the top, along with Stanford and Georgia Tech.


Why did you choose engineering as your major?

When I was a kid at a very early age—around 6—my dad and my uncles were always car fanatics; as a matter of fact, they were amateur drag racers and they built car engines and cars to race—and I remember asking my dad who designs engines. And he said engineers do. So at a very early age, I knew that I wanted to be an engineer. I was always focused on science and math and I always liked what I considered the tangible aspect of what mechanical engineers did. I considered electrical engineering, but I always liked the mechanical world—the things you can really touch and feel and kind of get your arms around. Over the course of the years, I got really interested in control systems, because in my mind that was really where the electrical/digital world and the mechanical world interacted. And so when you look at what I studied at Wisconsin and the kind of things that have interested me since that time, that foundation was the catalyst that has kept me passionate about the field and the work that I do on a daily basis. With the emergence of applications like the Internet of Things, I have never been more excited about the future and the role that engineering and the work we do at Intel will continue to play.


Who was your favorite engineering professor?

Professor Robert Lorenz. I was really passionate about controls, and Bob was an expert in this space, not just from an academic standpoint, but also when it came to real-world applications.  I remember Bob as a really smart guy who had that special passion and you knew that he absolutely loved what he did—and that was really inspiring.


What was your favorite engineering class?

It was the one of the key graduate courses that Bob taught—it was either EE or ME 546—and it was a graduate lab course for controls. The thing that I really enjoyed about that course was that in my undergrad studies, as well as courses I took at the graduate level, we were really focused on control theory and control systems design and things like that, but that course was the first class that allowed me to put that theory into practice. And then you combine that with a great professor, and it was a really fun class.


When you were a student, what was your favorite place to hang out on campus?

It was probably Union South—and I’ll tell you why. I went to Illinois as an undergrad, and we had only one union, which was the gathering place for all the students from across campus. With two student unions at UW,  I always felt like Union South was really the engineering union, where people like me hung out. I really liked it there.


What’s your fondest memory of your time on campus?

In addition to the quality of education and the courses like the one I just described, and the research projects and everything else, I really appreciated the ability to have broader impact through participation in things like the Engineering Summer Program, as a teaching assistant and as a mentor to many undergrad minority engineering students. At the time, there were a handful of African American graduate engineering students; I think the undergraduates really looked up to us and recognized that we had been successful at getting one degree at major engineering institutions and thus we knew their journey as engineering students and the challenges. It was good to have the relationships, to be able to be there and inspire them and motivate them and help them where necessary. I got a lot out of that. And I had the opportunity and was used on many occasions as an ambassador for prospective students visiting campus to evaluate UW as a place to pursue graduate studies. So those things are things I really remember and valued a lot. And actually, when I think about the other options I had for graduate studies—Stanford, as an example; Georgia Tech, Purdue—those were my other top-three choices—I think about Wisconsin and I just wonder if I would have had that same opportunity at those other places—and I firmly don’t think I would have.


What lessons did you learn as a student that have benefited you most in your career?

No surprise: When you think about the liberal ideology which was and is probably still present at UW, one thing that really stood out to me was how much people cared about the issues and things that were happening around the world, and the strong positions they took on those things. And I remember very vividly people protesting at the Memorial Union about various issues, in some cases when it was very cold outside. I remembered thinking that people must really care about these issues or are just oblivious to the cold. As I transitioned to my engineering career, the work that I did, because of that experience, was more than just about the technology, but beyond that—the implications the technology had on society. When you think about technology, and how it’s evolved, it’s definitely not just about what the technology can do, but what you want it to responsibly do. And there are a lot of implications based on decisions that we as professionals make in developing manufacturing and deploying a technology. You think about artificial intelligence, advanced robotics automation, autonomous vehicles; these things are and will become very prevalent. And you have to continue to balance between what the technology can feasibly do, and how you want to manage it so that it can responsibly do what you want it to do. A large part of my career has been in the supply chain, and thinking about some of the implications of some of the decisions that we made, and some of the things that we’ve done around that, that had less to do with the product and more about the societal implications—things like some of the environmental social governance things that we’ve led around the world, conflict-free minerals as an example; we’ve actually taken a stance and have influenced and partnered with people in putting controls and systems in place to make sure that critical raw materials that we use in our products aren’t coming from conflicted mines in various places like the Republic of Congo. Thinking even broader across the technology industry and implications when it comes to the lack of inclusion of females and underrepresented minorities, not only in terms the engineering jobs, the leadership jobs wiwth some of the most prominent and faster growing companies in the world, but also when it comes to involvement in the startup culture. I and others have had a role in influencing these types of things and they are important for society and for the sustainability of our industry. And again, I think a key influence in my involvement on these types of things was that liberal ideology and strong stance I saw across the UW campus when it came to various issues affecting society.


What is your current title and company?

Vice President, Technology and Manufacturing Group and Director, Global Systems Supply Chain and Technology Enabling. I am responsible for managing the global manufacturing and component supply chain for all system and platform products across the company from server solutions to wireless and advanced connectivity to drones and wearable devices. This includes working with the technology ecosystem to drive new technologies in areas such as sensors, displays and cameras/optics just to name a few. I am also responsible for managing Intel’s supply chain for key memory technologies which support our microprocessor products.


Of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?

Probably the broad proliferation in Wi-Fi that Intel enabled across the industry and the role I played in driving critical elements of the supply chain in support; we launched a product platform called Centrino after the turn of the century. Wi-Fi technology was available, but not broadly proliferated, not until we launched it on our Centrino mobile wireless platform. In our business, we typically didn’t bundle connectivity solutions without our microprocessor products. In this case, we said it’s going to be sold as a platform, which basically meant that if we didn’t have Wi-Fi capability out there, and if our supply chains weren’t capable of producing the right technology in the right quantities at the right cost and quality, we would gate CPUs sales which just couldn’t happen. And so I was responsible for a lot of the key capabilities, the elements in support of that supply chain. And it was hard. The project essentially went from zero to 100 in a matter of months, and it wasn’t about going out and securing stuff that was readily available in that industry; we had to work a lot, strategically, with ecosystem players, to develop new technologies to invest millions of dollars in capacity expansions, and we had to do it within time frames that were much tighter than was typical in the industry. And so when I look back and think about how we hurdled all of the obstacles; it was probably one of the most successful product platform launches in the history of the company; and also when you think about the implications to the world, it’s what made Wi-Fi become the de facto technology across the industry for mobile computing. I take a lot of pride in that.


Who played the greatest role in your achievements?

I have been pretty fortunate in that I have had many, many great mentors and managers formally and informally; people who have taken a vested interest in my career.  One particular person is a guy named Ralph Gillespie. He is the guy who actually introduced me to supply chain early in my career at Intel. I was in a technology development role and the supply chain organization needed folks who understood our technology development methodologies and who could work with suppliers to enhance their ability to deliver on advanced technologies which didn’t yet exist in the market. And the one thing that I recall and appreciated about the relationship was the trust and transparency. His bar and his expectations for me were very high and he never held back any punches. At times, we had some very difficult conversations related to career direction, and I really always appreciated the fact that he always told me exactly how he saw things. When I think about the decisions I made based on the advice he gave, if it wasn’t for some of those things, I would never have gotten to the place I am today.


What advice would you give students in your discipline today?

Be agile; be flexible, especially when you work in the technology space—and ultimately, have a broader vision for your work and the implications it has on the world. This holds true in whatever industry you go into; that is, the world will be different in 10 years vs. today; even more different in 20 years down the road. Technology will continue to advance and evolve in an accelerated place, and there will be implications beyond technology that will require agility, flexibility, continued leadership—and again, responsible and ethical leadership—and will include some issues that may not even be comprehended today, in terms of what those changes will mean.


If you had to do it all over again and pick a major other than engineering, what would you choose?

I wouldn’t pick a different major. But if I had to, probably business. Again, I have a business degree now, so I think I have the perfect combination. I have a master’s in business from Northwestern to go along with my engineering degrees.


What are your hobbies/interests?

My Christian faith is important to me and I continue to try to balance my spiritual life with other aspects of my life. I really enjoy spending time with my family. My wife Prudence and my kids Brooke, 10, and Grant, 4, are a joy to be around and they keep me grounded. My parents, in-laws and the majority of the rest of my family are in Illinois. I don’t get to see them as much as I like but I cherish every moment I get with them as well. I’m also a big fan of college athletics; I always mention that during my time at Madison is when we hired Barry Alvarez, so I watched the transition of the Badgers going from one of the worst football teams in the conference to one of the best in the nation. I think the last year I was at Madison we may have won one game but you could see the difference in terms of how hard the team played. We knew there were good things that would follow. And shortly after I graduated, the Badgers went to the Rose Bowl and that was a big thing. Also when I was at UW, the Fab Five basketball team was at Michigan; we had a couple solid freshmen that nobody talked about—one guy was Michael Finley.  He was a quiet kid who walked through the ME building daily and past my lab on his way to practice. I remember watching him play the Fab 5 and he was not just the best freshman but the best player on the floor. He went on to have a fabulous NBA career and the Badger basketball program has had similar success and that has been amazing to see. I went to two other Big Ten schools, as well: Illinois as an undergrad; Northwestern for a master’s in business, and so my loyalty is with the Big Ten.

Author: Engineering External Relations