Tana Utley is chief technology officer and vice president of the Product Development Center of Excellence at Caterpillar Inc., responsible for the organization’s research and development activities. A Bradley graduate, she originally planned to major in music, but instead followed in her father’s footsteps and became an engineer. Since joining the company in 1986, she has held a variety of positions, serving as director of the Engine Design, Large Engine Products & Fuel Systems Division and leading the Electronic & Electrical Systems business unit in Caterpillar’s Motion and Power Control Division.
Please tell about growing up in Peoria, your family and its roots with Caterpillar.
My family moved to Peoria when I was small because my father took an engineering job at CAT. He participated in the company’s college graduate training program in 1964. Like many program participants, my dad became close friends with a few of his colleagues. He was a loyal CAT employee and has a few patents that we still use today. The kitchen table conversation about CAT was positive, though I didn’t consider working there myself when growing up. I had intended to major in music.
Describe your time at Bradley University. What inspired you to join the engineering field?
During my senior year in high school, I selected WIU because they had a good music program. However, shortly before enrolling I decided to pursue engineering. I selected engineering through a process of elimination. I didn’t care much for laborious reading, couldn’t tolerate blood, and was decent at math and science. Because WIU doesn’t have a four-year engineering program, I completed their two-year pre-engineering program and transferred to Bradley.
I selected Bradley because I needed to be near home for personal reasons. I am grateful they had an engineering program and was pleased with the quality of education. Full professors who were devoted to teaching taught the courses. The professors were committed to the students’ understanding of the material. This commitment remains a hallmark of Bradley’s undergraduate education.
What were your early days at Caterpillar like during the ‘80s-era recession?
I spent the early ‘80s in college. I drove by the Mossville CAT plant daily on my way to Bradley. I witnessed work stoppages and layoffs. Peoria in the early ‘80s was not a pleasant place. Caterpillar was under severe competitive pressure and suffered financial losses. The local economy suffered mightily, and many laid-off employees sought new opportunities. The company didn’t hire many engineers during my college days.
My college internship was in Redondo Beach, California, working for an aerospace company. I began to interview for college graduate positions in late 1985. By this time, Caterpillar had begun hiring engineers again. I interviewed for a position, not expecting to take a job at CAT. However, I found the offer to be competitive with the aerospace offer, with the added benefit of the lower cost of living in central Illinois and the familiar territory. My husband, whom I met at Bradley and is also a mechanical engineer, agreed the cost of living and local ties outweighed the allure of living in sunny, southern California.
I participated in the same college graduate training program in which my dad participated. Like him, I still have friends whom I met in the program. I have a great photo collection in my office of my dad’s 1964 class, my 1986 class and the 2007 class.
I joined Caterpillar at a time of conservative opportunity. The early ‘80s hiring freeze left the company with plenty of work for new engineers. I always felt that I would have more meaningful work and responsibility than if I had joined an automotive or aerospace company. My family background was also helpful, as I had some understanding of the company’s history and culture even as a new employee.
As an engineer, how did you get your start in management?
Engineers are problem solvers, and I am no exception. As I gained technical competence in the field of diesel engines, I became a lead problem solver. My first big challenge came in the early 1990s when we undertook a major initiative to improve head gasket reliability. I had a technical leadership role in solving this problem. I had the opportunity to work with other engineers, manufacturing, field technicians, suppliers and management. While stressful, I enjoyed the opportunity to lead problem-solving teams. Later, I became a lead engineer in an engine group, where I was responsible for ensuring a new engine design was properly validated. These early technical leadership and problem-solving opportunities were formative. Business is full of problems needing solutions and leaders.
My first management positions were leading technical groups. This came after a decade of technical and lead engineer work. I am an advocate of proving your competency in your chosen field before seeking management positions. At one point during those first 10 years, I turned down a promotional opportunity to an area outside engineering because I wanted to finish my current program. Later, I had opportunities to work in cross-functional areas.
Briefly discuss your background and interest in technology.
I am a mechanical engineer by training and enjoy the thermal sciences and engines. I have always considered myself more a student of engineering than an expert in any given field. I like to study the evolution of technology and the impact it has on our lives. I love to work with the talented engineers we have at Caterpillar. Their innovation inspires me to be their advocate and the champion of their ideas. My main interest is in commercializing technology to make our customers more successful. This is why I say I am a conduit between technology and business. Some people are gifted technically. Some are excellent business people. I help the two worlds come together to make Caterpillar and customers become more successful.
What are your chief duties at Caterpillar?
I am the vice president of the Product Development Center of Excellence and the chief technology officer. The division is responsible for Caterpillar’s technical facilities (Technical Center in Mossville, Proving Grounds in Tucson and Peoria, machine and engine labs in Britain, and an upcoming R&D facility in China) and an engineering office in India. At the Product Development Center of Excellence, we are also responsible for Caterpillar’s product development processes and standards, as well as the company’s technology strategy and research activities. Our diverse team of engineers and scientists are engaged in projects ranging from resolving a problem on a current product to researching ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Describe the risk associated with the decision to abandon cooled-exhaust gas recirculation technology in favor of unproven ACERT technology. What was the most difficult technical challenge in making ACERT work?
Based upon years of research in basic engine technologies, Caterpillar elected to pursue a differentiated technology approach for meeting 2002 on-highway emissions standards. This decision was driven by the need to meet customer expectations for fuel economy and durability, along with our ability to integrate our core technologies together in a unique way to meet those expectations.
Caterpillar’s system solution utilizing fuel system, air system, aftertreatment and electronic technologies was radically different from the industry standard. At the time, no engine manufacturer besides Caterpillar had determined how to create such a system solution. It was technically difficult because the emissions regulations were extremely challenging, the components were sophisticated and the control system was complex. The tight timetable for developing and implementing the technology increased the risk. A failure of the program would have prevented us from selling engines into the EPA-regulated market.
The most challenging element of the ACERT program was the need to invent on a schedule. Our idea for a system solution required a few inventions to be successful. Communication was also a challenge. We had to keep the team motivated and keep a large range of audiences informed of our progress. Interested parties included regulatory agencies, suppliers, customers, employees, executives and others.
The experience reinforced the importance of invention and commitment. Caterpillar has some great inventors to invent, engineers to design, and armies of people engaged in making a product a commercial reality. Caterpillar’s ability to get behind an initiative and push it to fruition is remarkable. Hundreds of people made ACERT happen.
What are some other key technology projects you are most proud of having worked on in your career? What are some of the projects in which you are currently involved?
I was a lead engineer for the C10 and C12 engines launched around 1996. We had a cohesive group that stayed together for a number of years to launch this program. We worked together from the beginning to the end of the program and endured a work stoppage in the midst of it. The product launched was, at the time, the most reliable product ever launched by Caterpillar.
Today, I don’t work on individual technology projects, per se. Instead, I am working with other Caterpillar leaders to create and execute the enterprise technology strategy that defines how Caterpillar will use technology to compete in the future. You can see elements of our technology strategy in recent product announcements we’ve made: the D7E track-type tractor with electric drive and autonomous truck program. My job is to ensure we are investing in technologies and commercializing those that will fuel customer value and company success.
How is R&D structured at Caterpillar? Is research centered in specific geographic locations or is it done all over the world? What types of research are currently being done?
Our technology strategy is the compass for our research and development work. The work is done by engineers all around the world for our products manufactured and sold all around the world. We take a global view in our priorities and technology development.
The term “research” is generally used for advanced development. At Caterpillar, we perform applied research in which we are developing technology to be applied to our products in the future. Our researchers are working on technologies including alternative fuels, autonomy, emissions reductions components, advanced materials and others. Their emphasis is on determining how advances made in the basic sciences can help us provide more value to our products. The majority of our advanced research is done in the United States and Europe. At its root, most of our research is directed towards cleaner air, more productive products and product safety.
The term “development” is generally used for product engineering activities that apply to the next generation of products coming to market in the next one to four years. Caterpillar has design and development engineers in every geographic region to identify customer needs and design, develop, and manufacture products to meet the customer needs. One of Caterpillar’s greatest strengths is the ability to leverage global talent to meet customer needs. It is common for an engineer in the United States to have worked with engineers in China, India or Europe.
When an engineer has an idea that will create commercial value, we use a patent to protect the intellectual property. Caterpillar engineers have hundreds of patents on products and processes.
How involved were you in the spinoff of Firefly Energy? What factors are considered when deciding whether an innovation is spun off as a separate company or kept within the company?
I was not involved in the Firefly Energy spinoff as I was not responsible for the division at the time.
Caterpillar only benefits from their solitary pursuit of commercializing a technology when they have the scale to be successful and the technology provides value substantiated by price or low cost. Our engineers who develop batteries for our machines and engines invented the technology now embedded in Firefly. While it can be valuable for some Caterpillar products, the greatest value lies outside the construction equipment market. Further, the battery business is a high-volume business. They typically talk about volumes in the millions while Caterpillar talks about volumes in the thousands. We felt Firefly technology’s greatest potential was outside Caterpillar and elected to spin off the technology. This gives the concept its greatest opportunity to succeed and provides entrepreneurs with an exciting new venture.
What are some of the unique collaborations in which Caterpillar is involved? What is your involvement with NASA’s Constellation program?
Caterpillar partners with universities, consortiums, governmental research agencies and other companies around the world. This virtual organization gives us a broad exposure to the best minds and resources in their fields without reinventing technologies already invented.
At the university level, we select those universities strong in a given field for special partnerships. For example, we have a partnership with Carnegie-Mellon to develop advanced autonomous technologies. At the governmental level, we participate in programs to further joint governmental-corporate research. An example of this is the Energy Technologies Institute in the U.K. We are a founding member of this consortium that includes the U.K. government and several companies who do business in the U.K. The consortium is researching technologies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
What do you think is most important for the new administration to consider with regard to national technology policy and harnessing our ingenuity?
Technology policy should be founded on sound science directed to further society’s needs. The policy should focus on achieving desired outcomes while allowing industry and entrepreneurs to find the most effective and efficient means of achieving those objectives using technology. This approach is contrary to technology-forcing regulations that prescribe a specific technical solution.
Thoughtful patent reform is also important. I am a proponent of patent reform that would harmonize the United States with other countries and reduce the cost of litigation. Harmonization would reduce the cost of doing business with other countries and would reduce the use of intellectual property (IP)—or lack of—as a trade barrier. Strong IP laws and enforcement in all countries would facilitate free trade and open markets. Caterpillar has long been an advocate of free trade in every aspect of the company, and it’s important for that message to be delivered in central Illinois.
In 2008, Caterpillar’s U.S. exports surpassed $16 billion, helping to provide jobs for tens of thousands of Caterpillar and supplier employees in the United States. Here in the Peoria area, 56 percent of the products manufactured are exported to markets outside the country. Now is not the time for us to be turning inward and protectionist. We are proud of the global footprint we have established that allows us to compete and succeed around the world. IBI