Ten years from now, what advancement in materials science will have the greatest impact on consumers?
I won’t point to one single breakthrough innovation, but rather suggest that our mindset as scientists will be challenged to identify and develop the innovative solutions that will make the world safer and more sustainable. This requires understanding options and making thoughtful choices at every step of the process. It means making sure innovators understand principles of green chemistry and translate that to fewer kgs, fewer manufacturing steps, and lower material carbon intensity. At DuPont, our 2030 challenge goal is to design 100% of our products and processes using sustainability criteria, including the principles of green chemistry.
Talk about the metaphorical “one that got away”. Is there a project that eluded you? Why? And if you could return to it, what would you do differently?
To win some business, my colleague and I were asked to reduce Kapton® film defect density as well as manufacturing productivity for a novel film grade to improve the cost position for a specific end-use. The boundary conditions for this project required that the film property performance remained unchanged when compared to the original. Through some polymer reformulation and several plant tests, we were able to demonstrate both improved defect performance at an 80% rate improvement, all the while keeping key film bulk properties unchanged. The customer eventually decided to go in a different direction, as the film failed to meet a previously undiscussed chemical resistance test. Lessons learned for the technical team were to visit the customer early and often to verify both the overt and hidden critical to quality (CTQs) performance requirements.
What’s more gratifying: earning a patent or getting published in a scientific journal?
The polyimide film business is still a very competitive market even now 56 years after being first commercialized by DuPont in 1965. To meet our customer demands, our product pipeline constantly contains a mix of products with incremental improvements, as well as those that represent “game changers” from a product performance perspective.
To maintain our competitive edge and protect our technologies, our business puts a great deal of effort in maintaining a very strong Intellectual Property strategy. As a result, the opportunities to discuss novel developments in the open literature are very few. Therefore, it is very rewarding for me and my collaborators to be recognized with granted patents, as it protects both the technology we’ve developed and the revenue stream for DuPont during its lifetime.
Can you share an example where using your Six Sigma Black Belt Certification made the difference between success and failure?
Recently, I was involved in a development project with a very aggressive timeline to market. To meet customer critical to quality (CTQ) requirements, my team had to make a step change improvement for one of our existing Kapton® film products.
Using process and product knowledge, a design of experiment (DOE) using fractional factorial design principles was developed to test how relevant manufacturing process variables impact key polyimide film performance attributes on our research semiworks production asset. We leveraged the favorable results from the test to a full-scale manufacturing test where the resolution of the factorial design was increased to probe additional main effects and associated interactions.
In the end, a candidate product by-process emerged and was subsequently commercialized within six months. I would certainly recommend that my early career colleagues take the time to complete work required to become Black Belt certified. The training does a good job covering the basic processes, statistical treatments, and a multitude of DOE methodologies to quantitatively conduct an experiment in the most efficient way.
How would you explain to early career scientists the importance of collaboration and connecting science to marketplace opportunities?
In the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to mentor and teach some of my younger early career colleagues. One of the first things I try to emphasize is to “Avoid being a Lone Ranger.” Hiding out in the lab with little or no professional network only does the young scientist a disservice. It’s not the way we do product developments at DuPont, as it makes for inefficiencies and is really a career derailer.
I’ve encouraged my team members to actively participate where possible in our formalized stage-gated product development process which brings together various business functions including marketing, sales, manufacturing, supply-chain, and technology. These teams are tasked to deliver new products that meet customer performance expectations, in a timely manner, and within a budget. These are perfect venues to really understand what is important to our customers, learn how our business operates, and bridge the technical gaps from small scale laboratory formulation to large scale commercial manufacturing processes.
Take me back to when you were seeking employment after graduate school. How were you able to land that first job? What do you think got you hired?
Knowing that I would be completing my PhD dissertation by mid-year 2002, my job search started in earnest during the very early part of that year. Before I knew it, I had the luxury of two simultaneous opportunities at DuPont.
In one case, I was referred to an R&D opportunity in Orange, TX to support Surlyn® ionomer research and manufacturing by one of my University of Connecticut academic advisors who maintained a professional relationship with one of the Senior Technical Fellows in that organization.
The other required a bit more effort on my part. At that time, the internet and the World Wide Web were widely becoming commercialized and monster.com was the “go-to” site for job seekers. A fortuitous keyword search on the term “polyimide,” the focus of my graduate research, led me to the DuPont opportunity in Circleville, OH to support Kapton® polyimide films R&D.
I visited both sites for face-to-face interviews, which also included a seminar on the highlights of my graduate research. I got offers from both locations. Considering I had studied and already done a great deal of research on polyimide materials as part of my graduate preparation, the decision to join the DuPont Kapton® team was very easy for me, as I felt I could be readily impactful from day one.
If you had to break it out in rough percentages, how much of your career success do you owe to your formal academic schooling, the professional training that DuPont has provided you, and general ‘on the job’ experience?
20% academics: the foundation on which everything else is built
30% professional training: various seminars, training courses (Six Sigma)
50% on the job: no better way to learn than to immerse oneself in the job. It’s one of the main concepts I try to teach our younger scientists. There is no substitute for these first-hand learning opportunities.
Having spent 15 years in industry, can you share three things you learned about working with people that they don’t teach you in university?
Learn from your colleagues and managers. To get the most out of a job – especially the first job after graduate school - you need to make sure that you are learning from everyone, not just the one person that you report to. At DuPont, everyone learns from everyone. You’ll see marketers sitting with engineers who then sit with salespeople, all to extract knowledge and help become a more well-rounded team member.
Find a mentor. I am a huge believer in the importance of mentors. I think it’s vital for professional growth (especially as a recent grad) to have someone who’s been in your shoes to give you guidance and advice.
Grow your network. It’s important to continuously network inside and outside of your industry. I think of networking as an opportunity to build relationships, continue to grow / learn, and to stay on top of trends. Networking doesn’t have to be so formal — in fact, I always prefer coffee or an opportunistic phone call to a formal conference or event.
How has your family influenced your leadership style?
I’m lucky to have a great family, with a wife of 22 years, an 18-year-old daughter, and a 19-year-old son, both in college now. During these Dad years, I’ve picked up a few skills that are effective both at home as well as in the office. Very early on I learned to know what to say and what not to say. The key is to not make trouble about more than one thing at a time – if I disagree with something I turn it into a question. Also, my family and colleagues always appreciate my encouragement. I never miss an opportunity to recognize a job well done and submit for awards or special recognition.
What’s the one thing you wish you had learned earlier in your career?
While it may be more comfortable as a new employee to not make too many waves and absorb the new culture by osmosis, it’s probably not the most efficient means to tackle the learning curve. Instead, I should have continued to keep asking questions, even though I was out of the classroom. I can’t stress how important it is to always ask questions at work, especially as a recent grad new to a job. Success at work doesn’t necessarily come from being a “total expert.” Instead, it comes from your ability to collaborate with others, try new things, and learn from both your wins and losses.
What non-technical skills have you most relied on to-date for your career advancement?
Being clever and innovative are really the basic and rudimentary table stakes for successful technical career progression within DuPont. Perhaps more valuable to career progression is the ability to communicate concepts, results, and data clearly and succinctly to various audiences.
I’ve always considered myself an effective oral communicator. The formula is rather simple: clearly express and articulate objectives of my work, my actions, my learnings, and conclusions with the appropriate amount of detail for the intended audience. One of my biggest pet-peeves is sitting in on a technical review where the speaker presents a series of 10 x 10 tables of values where a simple graphical analysis of the data would have communicated the concept much more clearly. I always try to formulate my message in a way that persuades and motivates others.
What’s a place you can’t wait to go back to?
In 2019, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to take my family to visit Bonaire, a small island municipality of the Netherlands, that lies off Venezuela’s coast in the southern Caribbean. We were drawn to visit by its unspoiled landscape and simple amenities.
As snorkel enthusiasts, our family was also attracted to its thriving and vibrant coral reef system. The island is rimmed with at least 60 numbered dive and snorkel sites, each providing innumerable opportunities to see vibrantly colored fish interacting with their coral habitats. I was able to see living brain coral the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Every morning, we walked out the door of our Airbnb and descended a set of steps down to the sea and dipped into the reef system around Te Amo Beach. The effect is immediately meditative. Weightless, the only sound in your ears the intake and outflow of breath, stressful terrestrial thoughts become as transient as the waves. Once this worldwide “Plague” gets under control, I hope to return one day for more of the same.
Chris joined DuPont in 2002 as a research chemist developing new products and processes to support the Kapton® polyimide films and Pyralux® laminates portfolio within the DuPont Interconnect Solutions business. In his 19 year career, he has progressed within the research and development organization developing novel Kapton® films and associated process research for the flexible printed circuit industry. Chris has contributed and collaborated with global, cross-business unit, and local project teams with persistence in solving problems leading to successful commercialization and deployment of new products to the market. His recent research interests are toward enabling Kapton® and Pyralux® materials technologies to facilitate wider bandwidth, higher capacity, and lower latency communications networks and devices.
This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.
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