Bright new leadership at Bright Machines: A Q&A with Caroline Pan

April 28, 2021
"I never felt daunted by complexity—or my male classmates."

After leading strategy efforts at the likes of Honeywell, Intel and Ford, Caroline Pan recently took the marketing reins at automation startup Bright Machines. Here we chat with the CMO about the changing role of women in manufacturing, shifting supply chains and the benefits of our recent, global wake-up call. 

Take a look…

Smart Industry: Describe your new role. 

Caroline: I’m thrilled to join Bright Machines leadership team at this particular inflection point—it’s a wake-up call for the entire global manufacturing industry and its associated supply chains. If the events of 2020 taught us anything, it is that the sector as it stands today was not built to withstand large-scale, unexpected shocks such as a pandemic or major shipping route blockage.           

As a former engineer and career executive at multiple Fortune 100 manufacturing companies, I understand the challenges and constraints associated with designing and building products for global reach and scale. As a brand strategist and storyteller, I can drive broader awareness and understanding around “smart automation” and how it enables greater supply chain resiliency, the ability to create distributed (rather than concentrated) manufacturing networks, and even drive future job creation through workforce reskilling. I’ll be working closely with our customers to demonstrate the tangible value our solutions have brought them; and showing how—together—we will move this industry forward.  

It’s the opportunity of a lifetime to take this fascinating, but still nascent, brand and make it truly iconic. We are reshaping the face and future of manufacturing for years to come.

Smart Industry: What is the state of women in decision-making roles in manufacturing? How is it changing? 

Caroline: The lack of women in manufacturing jobs is hardly a new phenomenon. A study commissioned by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute a few years back highlighted that only 29% of manufacturing workers were women (despite women representing 47% of the total US labor force). When you take into account that just 25% of all C-suite roles are held by women, the trend is clear: the manufacturing industry still greatly lacks female representation, particularly at the leadership level. 

Over the course of my career, I have had the good fortune of working with many highly trained, very capable women—peers, managers and direct reports. Many of them are now leading manufacturing-driven companies, both big and small, across sectors as diverse as semiconductors, automotive, industrials and chemicals. But we need many more, which is why these conversations are so important to have. 

Smart Industry: What is the path to the top for women in manufacturing? 

Caroline: My father was a nuclear power-plant engineer and instilled in me, from a very young age, an appreciation for math and science. The early and continuous emphasis in these disciplines ensured that I never felt daunted by complexity—or my male classmates. I went on to study mechanical engineering at MIT, where I happily embraced both the light-filled design studio as well as the dark, underground machine shop full of drill presses, lathes and other heavy equipment. Here, only what you could design and build mattered.  

I’ve spent my entire life working in male-dominated industries and have found that the more experience you have being the only woman (and sometimes the only minority) in the room, the higher your comfort level…the more it doesn’t faze you. I’ve also been very lucky to have a number of mentors and sponsors who have served as amazing sounding boards and supporters at various transition points in my career.        

Data shows that female-employee presence is strongly correlated with female-leadership presence. As female representation in decision-making roles continues to increase, I believe more women will feel it possible for them to have a seat at the table, too. I hope women see me, and other leaders like me, in manufacturing-leadership roles and know that they, too, can be successful in this industry. 

Smart Industry: Global supply chains are certainly in flux. How will post-pandemic conditions affect this turbulence and what positives will come out of this period of supply chain disruption? 

Caroline: Having spent 13 years working abroad in China, I saw how many manufacturers (in particular, Western companies) embraced a “global supply chain” strategy. It was simply cheaper and easier to outsource their manufacturing and then ship finished goods to wherever their end customers might be. However, the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with trade and transportation restrictions, created a major shock to the system. It showed us the fragility of global manufacturing and highlighted the growing importance of having a more distributed factory network with localized sourcing and production. 

The upside here is that manufacturers are now thinking much more critically about issues they haven’t dealt with in decades—how to reshore manufacturing, how to increase domestic production, how to speed up innovation, how to hire and train the right manufacturing talent in their home countries—all while not losing their competitive edge. 

Smart Industry: What most excites you about the near future of manufacturing?

Caroline: I’ve witnessed incredible transformations in both the high-tech and industrial-manufacturing realms, but while talk of Industry 4.0 and the “Factory of the Future” has been part of our lexicon for more than a decade, it has never quite seemed to fully materialize—until now.  

The potential of applying software-design principles, coupled with computer vision, machine learning, 3D simulation, and adaptive robotics, to solve these age-old problems is massive. Suddenly, factories become flexible, production becomes distributed, automation becomes intelligent, and manufacturing companies don’t need to choose between scale and agility. It’s an incredible prospect and we’re only just getting started.