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Women Manufacturing in a Man's World

Alexi Cluff, a 13-year-old girl, visited Forest City Gear to explore the options for women in manufacturing, an environment traditionally thought to be “a man’s world.”

Forest City Gear frequently opens its doors to visitors, usually from customer and prospect companies, as well as international trade associations, the media, vendors and occasionally, competitors. Company owners Fred and Wendy Young have always believed this policy was beneficial to the visitors who can see some of the industry’s finest gearwork, produced and validated for quality on absolute state-of-the-technology and world-class equipment. 

On March 30, 2011, however, another visitor came to tour Forest City Gear with a slightly different agenda. Thirteen-year-old Alexi Cluff, accompanied by her grandfather Brian Cluff, vice president of Star-SU, a leading supplier of gearmaking machinery and tools, visited Forest City Gear to learn about manufacturing and especially to explore the options for women in manufacturing, an environment traditionally thought to be “a man’s world.” 

Alexi is not your typical 13-year-old. She is currently enrolled in a program sponsored by a grant from the Motorola Foundation, and conducted at the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology at Northern Illinois University. The program is a workshop in partnership with NIU-Enhanced Engineering Pathways, the Society of Women Engineers and the Girl Scouts of Northern Illinois.  The stated objective of the program is to challenge and sharpen the skills of accelerated learning for 12- and 13-year-old girls selected by their local middle school science and math teachers.

Currently, 48 girls work in small groups, assisted and taught by NIU women engineering professors and women engineers from various industries. These instructors mentor the girls on various engineering projects, from the building of simple electrical circuits to create sound, motion and light, to bridge building, chemical engineering and lean manufacturing simulation. The groups meet on Saturday mornings on the NIU Naperville, IL campus and also attend a summer camp, held each June. 

Often, the groups or individual students have tours arranged for them at local area manufacturing locations, such as electronics and communications giant Motorola, where they can absorb “real-world” experiences and especially meet women of all ages who have succeeded in the various disciplines required in a manufacturing environment. 

Since Alexi’s grandfather had a long working relationship with Forest City Gear, he reached out to Fred and Wendy Young to arrange a tour. The Youngs obliged, giving the young lady a complete tour of their factory and quality lab, plus arranging a roundtable discussion with a number of the women at the company, who perform all categories of activity for Forest City Gear. A world leader in precision gear manufacturing, Forest City Gear has an international reputation for “excellence without exception,” which happens to be the motto of the company. 

Women from all departments of the company, including application engineering, human resources, gear grinding, gear deburring, gear hobbing, order processing, estimating, expediting, procurement, materials inspection, quality validation, machine setup and company management were at the table. Alexi’s eyes and ears were wide open, as she listened attentively to every word. 

Seated at the table for Forest City Gear, in addition to Wendy Young, president, were Kika Young, Geneva Parr, Mary McClellan, Krista King, Sharyl Stewart, Lori Lovett and Ingrid West. These women are involved in literally every aspect of the company.

As Mary McClellan mentioned, “We touch the products at every step of the process, especially me (in gear deburring), because of my little fingers!” 

These women were unanimous in their advice to Alexi Cluff. “Always be willing to learn more, never be afraid to speak up with your ideas, bring all your skills to the job every day and don’t hesitate for ask for directions … Something men never do!” They all had a good laugh. 

Alexi said, “I’ve always been interested in making things and finding out how they work,” a sentiment her grandfather echoed. “I started making gears when I was 14 and it’s fascinated me ever since.” If there’s anything to that old adage about the genes skipping a generation, perhaps the gear industry will have another Cluff in its future.

At the end of the roundtable, Forest City Gear CEO Fred Young had some comments. He detailed the difference in the European education model, where there’s considerably more encouragement given to young women to explore any and every working option.

In America, he noted, “Our greatest strength came from manufacturing, the basic ability to make things better and faster than anybody else.  The value-added service of making something from raw materials is what builds a nation’s wealth and makes us more self-reliant. Letting go of manufacturing would be a big mistake. By learning and using the technology we develop, as well as what we can gather from other countries, we’ll make America a stronger nation and more successful in the long run.” 

Following the visit, her grandfather remarked to Forest City Gear President Wendy Young, “Alexi was excited and, on the way home, quite animated. The sharing time with your ladies impressed her immensely. She has been journaling her observations. She told us in the car on the way back home that the very first class she had at the NIU workshop for girls was a hands-on exercise in lean simulation, and that what she saw at Forest City Gear, from the way the routing sheets, bar codes and processing were set up, that you obviously have implemented lean manufacturing practices. As she downloads, processes and articulates what she saw and observed, she has already started to ask me questions about gear geometry. Such sweet candy to this old grandpa!” 

In reviewing the NIU program and the comments above, perhaps it’s possible Alexi Cluff actually is your typical 13-year-old girl. They just need to be shown their options.

Forest City Gear was founded in 1955 by Stetler and Evelyn Young, parents of the current CEO, Fred Young, who runs the company with his wife, President Wendy Young. Forest City Gear is considered among the premier gearmakers in the world, with successes ranging from the Mars Rover to the BMW/Oracle, winner of the America’s Cup.

Brian Cluff and his longtime colleague and partner, David Goodfellow, manage and operate Star SU LLC, located in Hoffman Estates, IL. The company sells various leading brands of gearmaking machinery, other machine tools and a proprietary line of cutting tools. 

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