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Q&A: Master of control

Issue: Oct. 2017

For many people, the interests they had during childhood continue to develop as they grow up, perhaps forming the bedrock of their adult lives. But that isn’t always the case, and it certainly wasn’t for Raymond Kelly, VP of engineering for Conair Group.
Kelly designed his first product for the plastics industry — a multi-      purpose control — more than three decades ago. He has been a voracious student of business and engineering ever since, but his never-ending quest for knowledge was more of an acquired taste than something he was born with.
“In retrospect, it’s been quite a journey,” he said. “When I was in first grade, my mother literally had to drag me to the bus stop and force me onto the bus every day — and now I have two master’s degrees.”
Kelly is an acknowledged visionary in the auxiliary equipment sector. He discussed his career with Michael T. McCue, Plastics Machinery Magazine copy editor.

Just the facts

Kelly

WHO IS HE:  Raymond Kelly
JOB: VP of engineering for Conair Group
LOCATION: Cranberry Township, Pa.
YEARS IN INDUSTRY:  21

How did you end up in the plastics industry?
Kelly: In the mid-1980s, I was working for a small design and manufacturing subcontractor that was approached by one of Conair’s engineers, Bob Criswell, for help with a proprietary multipurpose control. That was the first product I designed for the plastics industry, and it was used in temperature-control units and dryers.

What was the path that led you to where you are today?
Kelly: After designing the multipurpose control, I went on to design controls for a continuous loss-in-weight blender and communication networking modules that would connect Conair equipment to primary machines or other computers. I was attending night school, working toward an MBA, and in 1988 decided to leave that contract manufacturer for my first position in engineering management. I continued attending night school and after I finished with the MBA program, I went back to school full-time, working on a master’s degree in electrical engineering (MSEE).

How did you end up at Conair?
Kelly: After graduating with my MSEE, I noticed an advertisement that Conair was running for a controls engineer. The hiring manager was Bob Criswell, who had been promoted to engineering manager since we last worked together. Bob extended me an offer, and I worked for Conair from 1992 until 2000, designing various controls and products, and managing projects until eventually I was managing the electrical engineering department. Then, in 2000, I was approached by a small company that needed help developing their engineering and design capabilities. It was a very emotional decision, but I left Conair to pursue that opportunity. But 12 years later, I rejoined Conair as a product manager for conveying products. Shortly after that, I became VP of engineering.

What role does automation play today, and how do you see it changing over the next five years?
Kelly: Automation is the prime driver behind consistency and economy in industry today. We are at the dawn of the next industrial revolution. Through the use of inexpensive computer memory, connected controls and data science, automation is on the verge of taking a huge leap. Data science will be used to analyze the information provided by industrial processes to recognize correlations that previously went unnoticed. Variability will be further reduced, while quality and efficiency will be improved. Algorithms will be developed that predict problems and prescribe corrective measures before they affect the processes being monitored.

Talk a little about your patent.
Kelly: This invention uses the vacuum generated to convey the material to ensure that the correct material is being conveyed to the correct destination. In other words, by monitoring the vacuum level in each material line, we can make sure that the correct material is being conveyed. If we want to convey material A, but we see that the vacuum level in material B is increasing, we can stop the pump before the material is conveyed to the wrong destination and issue an alarm. We refer to these as “proofing systems.” The logic is all contained in our conveying control system; we only need to add vacuum sensors to the material lines.

Where did you get the idea?
Kelly: The idea was the result of a brainstorming session we had at Conair. During brainstorming, we use the Six Thinking Hats approach, as described by Edward de Bono. During this meeting, we were trying to develop a lower-cost alternative to proofing systems. Previously, Conair had patented technology that used optical recognition for proofing, while other companies in the industry had developed solutions of their own. All of the existing solutions added more cost than we thought necessary, or had problems with long-term reliability.
During this meeting, the lightbulb went off, noting that material only moves if there is a vacuum present to move it. If we added sensors, we could make sure the vacuum was connected to the correct material.

Is it being used in any of your equipment today?
Kelly: We released our Invisible Line Proofing product at NPE2015, and it is being successfully used by many of our customers.

Tell us a little bit about Conair’s work with academia.
Kelly: During my first term of employment, Conair worked with the Ben Franklin Technology Development Authority, which provided grant money to be used for joint research projects between industry and universities. Conair worked with Penn State University to conduct these projects. The relationship grew until a unique partnership was formed: the Conair Penn State Research Affiliation Agreement. This was a first-of-its-kind partnership between industry and Penn State. It was so novel that one of the participants on the Penn State side used it as the subject matter for her Ph.D. dissertation.
I was among the group negotiating for Conair and became the first Conair Research Liaison to Penn State. On the Penn State side, Dr. Kathryn Lilly was my counterpart, and together we searched for opportunities that would be mutually beneficial. Conair provided equipment, practical expertise and funding for projects, while Penn State provided theoretical expertise, student participants, faculty supervisors and matching funds through Ben Franklin. The brief time I was involved resulted in graduate theses, increased product understanding and product enhancements.

What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
Kelly: The greatest challenge I faced was the transition from engineer to manager. As an engineer, you are the problem solver. It’s your idea — you conceive it, you develop it, you implement it, you relish its success. As a manager, you learn to embrace the ideas of others even if you would have chosen a different path. You silently rejoice when you realize that by reserving your own ideas, an even better solution is discovered. The transition from doing to enabling is not natural for someone that has been successfully doing all of his life.

What do you think you might be doing today if you didn’t go into the plastics industry?
Kelly: If I wasn’t working in the plastics industry, I would be working somewhere in an engineering management capacity. The one universal in my career has been a connection to engineering — either designing or managing projects, or managing people — but always connected in some way to new product development and manufacturing.
I do have a secret desire to teach. I like sharing what I’ve learned, and I can remember what problems I encountered while learning, and I enjoy helping others get past those obstacles. Perhaps in retirement, I can fulfill this desire in a part-time capacity at a local community college.

How would you like to be remembered?
Kelly: There is a book, “The Making of Conair,” written by the company’s founder, John Reib. Not only does it describe the founding of the business, but the founding of the auxiliary equipment industry itself. It is an excellent read for anyone associated with our industry. I wasn’t around during the time that John Reib owned Conair and I wasn’t part of the early company successes. The book concludes with Reib explaining how he searched for a few years to find just the right buyer for his business. That buyer turned out to be G. Watts Humphrey and GWH Holdings.
Since the sale of Conair in 1986, much has happened to the company and the industry as a whole. I hope that someday there will be a sequel to “The Making of Conair,” and I hope there will be a chapter dedicated to the engineering department that I am part of today. While it will be the final chapter of my career, my goal is for it to be about the most innovative and dedicated group of engineers to work for Conair to date.