The GreenBiz Interview

How She Leads: Debbie Mielewski, Ford Motor

Courtesy of Ford Motor
Debbie Mielewski's team is experimenting with all manner of materials, from oatmeal waste to hemp.

Ford Motor has consulted nature for design ideas for more than a decade, even before it added a biomaterials team to Ford Research in 2001. That team, led by 28-year veteran company Debbie Mielewski has produced some pretty impressive results.

For example, Ford was the first car company to demonstrate that soy-based foam could stand up to basic automotive requirements, helping its manufacturing organization decrease the use of petroleum-based materials while reducing vehicle weight.

A more recent project has Ford researchers hunting for adhesive replacements inspired by the biology of geckos, which cling to all manner of surfaces in defiance of gravity. The idea is to develop a substance that bonds vehicle components together securely but that also allows them to be disassembled more easily—making it simpler for parts to be recycled. This particular project includes researchers from consumer products giant Procter & Gamble.

“Solving this problem could provide cost savings and certainly an environmental savings,” said Mielewski, whose official title is senior technical leader of plastics and sustainability research at Ford. Her official degree was for chemical engineering. “It means we could increase the recycling of more foam and plastics, and further reduce our environmental footprint.”

The Michigan native became obsessed with recycling at an early age, inspired by her father, an automotive line worker and “the king of reuse.” GreenBiz spoke with Mielewski about what inspires her researchers’ choices, and how they works with manufacturing teams and product managers to steer test requirements. The interview was edited for clarity and length.

Heather Clancy: What sort of environmental thinking did you do in your early career? Anything specific or were you motivated for personal reasons?

Debbie Mielewski: I was raised by the ultimate environmentalist. My dad was a World War II veteran, he was a Depression-era kid, he was the king of reuse, reduce, recycle. He didn't throw anything away until it was completely exhausted. It was just the way I was brought up, and I must have the same genetics in me. ... I can't see an item without seeing the value in it, even when it’s a high chair out on the curb, going into the trash. Even if I don't have any need for it, I'll find somebody who does.

Clancy: You’ve been working on these projects since 2001, which reflects a long-term interest. How has your role changed since you were initially assigned to work on biomaterials?

Mielewski: I started as a tech specialist, so I was leading a group, but I was in the laboratory with them, actually performing the research, developing the materials, optimizing the formulation. Then, over time, as this became a more important company initiative and we got support at our world headquarters tea, from the top of the house, I became the technical leader. So that was more of an administrative role and making sure that the researchers had the right projects and the right track, but I wasn't in the lab as much. Now I'm the senior technical leader, so it's more of a global perspective.

So the role has really expanded to a much higher level of thought around how we do things in ways that nobody's ever thought about before. I'm really enjoying the global part—which involves looking at excess in different countries, not shipping materials all over the world. I’m also with other non-competitive, large companies—their trash may be our treasure and vice versa. Together, we can close the loop and reutilize everything within our control that performs and that meets all the expectations for automotive. It's been super duper fun to watch this grow into a company philosophy. 

Clancy: How would you say that the perception of this role has changed within Ford? 

Mielewski: Well, I think we have many more people who support the idea of sustainable materials within the company. So I work with many more organizations … to write the specifications, along with the world headquarters who tracks the materials and is thinking about what sort of requirements we want to have for both recycled and renewable materials in the future. 

Clancy: What is your actual mandate?

Interviewee: Right now, we have a public statement that says that in every program, every model year, we'll increase the amount of renewable and recycled materials on our vehicles. So I think that's a big commitment and as far as the sustainable, the plant-based materials, we want to make sure that they are going to meet our customerss expectations. So on that level, we don't have a mandate, because we're doing the research here and we can't predict when they're going to become viable, but we have required that the engineering staff review and discuss plant-based materials where they make sense, so we're a part of that discussion.

Clancy: How do you define success?

Mielewski: I think success for us is defined when we see our materials actually implemented in a Ford production vehicle. Right now we have eight vehicles that contain plant-based materials that we've worked on in the laboratory. So I think there's promise for a lot more.

Clancy: I think scale tends to prevent a lot of companies from even experimenting. They think, ‘Oh, we can't do this in a big enough way to make it worth it.' How do you counter that argument?

Mielewski: We're willing to take small steps forward and so implementing soy-based foams was initially just on the Mustang program. Then six months later, we extended it to six more programs and then eventually, within a couple of years, we got it on every vehicle built in the U.S. So which one of those do I call success? I guess the first one and then the six after, I guess they're all successes. There's so many ways to be successful here, because even when we share that technology with the mattress industry and we see soy-based mattresses, that's a success for all of us.

Clancy:  To go back to the Mustang example, how hard was it to get that, actually, into the production process?

Mielewski: It's pretty complicated. We're just research people in the laboratory and trying to find ways to get around every technical hurdle. So for soy form, there were odor issues, there were foam-collapsing issues, there were the compatibility of all the different chemicals—they have to be compatible or else you have to continue to mix them when you're in the plant-type situation. How are we going to get soy-based materials kept separately in the plant? Who is going to buy that tank to do that?

So it's enormously complex from that perspective. Then on top of it, you have to get all of your suppliers [involved], because we don't mold seat cushions. Our suppliers mold those for us, so they have to be on board. There has to be a person that makes quality polyolefin soybeans to do business with, that whole supply chain has to be in line and available to provide the volume you need. So I've learned a ton from [the days when I was] just standing at the lab bench thinking that the material was all I had to develop. In order to get it into production, there'd have to be so many people within the company and outside of it that are also aligned.

Clancy: Where do you get the ideas for these off-the-wall experiments?

Mielewski: Well, it's so interesting because, initially, when we launched soy foam, I was terrified to talk to anybody in the media. I thought, ‘What am I going to say? What am I going to talk about?’ But in fact, talking about it is one way of letting people know that if they have the sustainable materials, they can come to me to talk about it.

Clancy: That's where you get your partners? I think Heinz is one of them?

Mielewski: The Heinz collaboration came from developing a different material, polyethylene terephthalate, PET, which is used for water bottles, soda bottles. We got together with Coca-Cola, Nike, Heinz, Proctor and Gamble to talk how we could develop this plant-based PET and use it collectively, accelerate the development by all showing an interest in improving the environment together.

Then we happened to be at a dinner one night and the Heinz fellow mentioned, 'Oh, hahaha, I have all this tomato fiber, I don't even know what to do with it.' And I jokingly, at the time, said, 'Ship some to us,' and they were like, 'Hey, that's not a bad idea.' So that's kind of how the partnership developed, just looking at, 'Wow, we get rid of this, you could use it.' And I think the more [companies] could do that globally, in this world, and avoid using landfills, the better off we'll all be.

Clancy: Is there a statute of limitations on how long you'll play with something before you decide it's just not going to be viable?

Mielewski: There are a whole bunch of pieces to that puzzle. If it's not going to be affordable, we don't want to get crazy. There are some really interesting materials that just don't have the business case to compete with the level of pricing we have currently. Fortunately, there are a lot of materials that don't have high value in the marketplace right now and a lot of them wind up being burned. We look at U.S. retired currencies—my gosh, we burn that sometimes, we landfill it and it's a high quality fiber of cotton and linen. If we find a use for that, we've done something for the environment.

Clancy: Who has been your most inspirational mentor?

Mielewski: I like that question, but I don't like picking somebody. I was a troublemaker, second child in high school and my high-school chemistry teacher was really critical in encouraging me [to realize] that I was a smart kid and that I needed to stop messing around so much and focus a little bit. I enrolled in chemistry, probably because of him and then I switched to chemical engineering a year-and-a-half later. We still stay in contact. … 

Then, when I came to Ford, I encountered two fellows that taught me, really, the discipline of doing research and good experiments, being very careful. Another person is [Ford Executive Chairman] Bill Ford, himself. Being an environmentalist and a CEO in the automotive industry and supporting this work all the way through has really helped. He’s been an incredible mentor.

Clancy: What advice would you give to someone aspiring to a career similar to yours?

Mielewski: I talk to kids quite often. I think it’s to have confidence in yourself and your ideas, to be patient, [to realize] that you don't get automatic reassurance or acceptance when you're studying and in your professional life. That sometimes it takes a lot of time to be successful. Another piece of advice is: always do the right thing, with your gut. I was able to marry my passion for the environment, minimizing my environmental footprint, with my job. I think that's what brings all the energy with me when I come to work every day. Because I really do want to help the environment and goodness gracious, I get to come to Ford and do that all day long.