Ford leader proves drive

Deborah Mielewski has been described as an innovator, a pioneer, revolutionary and a master at communicating and collaborating.

She spoke about her journey at Ford Motor Co. during the Seventh Patricia Adams Lecture Series at Heidelberg University Thursday evening.

Mielewski is technical leader of the Plastics Research Group at Ford’s Research and Innovation Center. She has been with the group for more than 26 years and has worked in several departments. She and an all-female team began the biomaterials program in 2001.

Mielewski presented her keynote address, “Greening the Blue Oval: My Sustainability Journey at Ford,” about growing up and what inspired her along with affecting the environment while at Ford.

Mielewski said growing up in Dearborn, Mich., she learned the philosophy she lives by through her father.

“He lived by using less, owning less and pulling over on the side of the road to pick up other people’s trash,” she said. “He lived very practical.”

Mielewski attending The University of Michigan, earning her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering.

After receiving several rejection letters in her search for employment, she landed a job at Ford. She was one of three and the only woman in the Plastics Research Group. Eventually she became technical leader of the group.

Mielewski’s team was the first to exhibit soy-based foam that could be used in automotive seating in 2007. The first vehicle to use soy-based foam was the 2008 Ford Mustang. The journey was long, she said, they were thrown out of many conference rooms with her idea for a bio-based foam.

The team had one major supporter, Ford CEO Bill Ford. Mielewski said the use of soy went as far back as founder Henry Ford.

“(Henry Ford) used soy beans in each car in the 1930s,” she said. “He had a firm belief for the farmer and industry to partner together.”

The first experiment didn’t go as planned, she said. The team worked and reworked the formulations for the material. Now, every Ford vehicle and more than 75 percent of the headrests in North American autos use the bio-based foam.

The group now is pioneering development of sustainable plastic materials that meet stiff automotive industry requirements, she said.

Mielewski said there are many benefits to using soy beans. It increases the renewable feed stocks, partners with farmers, reduces the need to use petroleum providing for a better country, improves performance, improves the vehicle’s life cycle and makes consumers aware of the impact on the environment.

There is 300 pounds of soy beans in each vehicle, she said.

She is the author of more than 30 journal publications, and also has 10 U.S. patents.

Mielewski closed with a quote from Henry Ford: “Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, either way you’re right.”

“Take positives, take risks and do the right thing.” Mielewski said. “Stick to your guns, think outside of the box.”

Sponsors of the event were Mercy Tiffin Hospital, National Machinery Foundation, Reineke Family Dealerships and Tiffin Aire. Heidelberg donated $10,000 to Ann Arbor Academy in Michigan and $10,000 back to the Patricia Adams Lecture Series in names of Mielewski and Ford.

The next lecture in the series is to be April 10 with an address by Cheryl Krueger, founder of Cheryl and Co., a gourmet cookie and gift company, and KRUEGER+CO. Consulting Inc.