Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies
Dan Keys Freudenberg

Generation Now Leadership: Co-op to Advanced Manufacturing Management in a Decade at Freudenberg-NOK

May 23, 2023
If you start with the right company, you don’t have to job hop to advance your career, says young leader Dan Keys.

Name: Dan Keys

Age: 32

Company: Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies

Education: Kettering University

Position: Engineering Manager, Digitalization and Advanced Manufacturing

Don’t tell Dan Keys that job-hopping is the only way to get ahead in your career. To the contrary, he’s evidence that the maxim isn’t true. At 32, this engineering manager has worked for Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies for more than a decade and has advanced steadily in his leadership career. It’s a matter of making the right choices, he says.

“I’ve put a lot of emphasis on picking the right company. I think that can’t be [overstated] as far as looking toward that long-term alignment,” Keys says. “I’ve been very satisfied with my career progression by staying with the same company.”

Keys is engineering manager, Digitalization and Advanced Manufacturing, for the company’s Oil Seals Powertrain and Driveline Division. It’s a bit of a split role, he says. On the digitalization side, Keys leads connected factory innovations, business intelligence and related new technologies activities across 11 sites. In advanced manufacturing, he works with the internal machine building group and in-house integrator.

The role is rewarding. “I have a lot of passion, being in manufacturing,” Keys says. “On the equipment building side, it’s very fast-paced, and we’re delivering these solutions [that] have very clear benefit to the process. That’s very motivating for me and my team.”

Keys’ career with Freudenberg-NOK began while he was still a mechanical engineering student at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan. He joined the manufacturer as part of a co-op program during his first year and essentially never left.

“The co-op program became a four-year learning opportunity for me to explore several departments [and] disciplines and participate on multiple high-visibility projects,” Keys says. “Once I joined up as a full-time engineer, I was able to immediately start contributing in my role.”

After completing the co-op, Keys joined Freudenberg-NOK as a process development engineer. Early in his career, he teamed up with a mentor at Freudenberg’s headquarters in Germany and, while his college studies had been in mechanical engineering, received training and shifted his focus to the software side of engineering, such as computer vision systems.

Generation Now stories focus on challenges and opportunities facing industry as multiple generations of leaders take on responsible roles in manufacturing. The first piece ran in the spring of 2022 and won a national award for manufacturing business writing.

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“That kind of pushed me into the integration and controls because you have to integrate these vision systems into manufacturing equipment,” Keys says.

Then began his first steps into leadership roles. “During that time, more and more equipment builds were happening, more and more integrations were happening, and I needed technicians to support me in that area.”

He got the technicians, with whom he still works, and added mentoring and training to his capabilities. As his skill sets increased, Keys showed the organization that he could “assume that leadership role as far as people management is concerned, which then allowed the organization to trust me with full engineering resources reporting to me.”

Planning for Success

These opportunities to advance did not come Keys’ way by happenstance. While the engineering manager says Freudenberg does a good job helping employees put together career development plans, and putting resources behind those plans, he also went in search of opportunities to grow.

“I was very hungry to take on responsibility, take on projects and, on the technical side, very hungry to learn new skill sets as well. My self-development was always very strong. I would even intertwine my hobbies with my work skill sets,” Keys says. Whether it be 3D-printing or home automation projects, “that has been a big benefit for me as well because now there’s so much crossover between home automation and manufacturing, the Internet of Things.”

Speaking of hobbies: An aviation enthusiast (he lives in an airpark community), Keys is part owner of a 1974 Cessna 172 four-seater airplane. Skills he learned at Freudenberg aided in the installation of a new engine and upgraded avionics. “Especially on the avionics side, all of the communication buses that we utilize … are very similar to industrial protocols that we use in the manufacturing facility. So, everything that makes all the instruments talk to each other are pretty much the same protocols for our connected factory initiatives.”

Moreover, Keys’ aviation enthusiasm garnered Freudenberg-NOK a new supplier. While searching for a local laser cutter to cut a new instrument panel he had designed in CAD, Keys discovered a supplier with a “beautiful online quoting tool,” quick turnaround and competitive pricing.

“And now pretty much every project at work, we use the same vendor,” he says.

Keys believes manufacturing in general, and Freudenberg in particular, provides ample openings to demonstrate leadership skills and show desire for career advancement.

“Especially manufacturing, there are gaps everywhere. There is opportunity in every place of a manufacturing facility. A lot of it comes down to finding those opportunities yourself,” Keys says.

At Freudenberg, “we employ a lot of different tools …  to show where the biggest opportunities are and really empower our staff to go out and correct them,” he says. “It’s a self-motivated program where there is opportunity to look for these big cost-savings initiatives, go out and be the champion of them, get whatever funding you need and execute. And hopefully at the end of the day, save money.”  

Early Victory

Keys describes an instance in which he was the champion of such an initiative; it happened early in his career and involved the installation of an automated quality control system. The proposal was a bit risky and he had to convince the company that it could succeed – “I did all the development and programming myself for this, with support from some mentors.”

The project “was a huge success,” Keys says, and helped Freudenberg secure future business. “And I think I got a good reputation in the company for taking risks and getting people on board. [And] backing it up with results.”

The engineering manager gives a nod to his four-year co-op in providing him and the company with the confidence to go after this significant project. The program allowed Keys to rotate through different departments and participate in several high-visibility projects while still a college student.

“I was able to start building my relationship and my trust with the company and the team. I was able to kind of leapfrog my career once I came on full time,” he says.

Keys advises students to seek out every opportunity for internships, co-ops or similar programs, and says he specifically looks for work experience when he’s hiring a new college graduate. Moreover, he believes the need to keep growing skill sets can’t be overstated.

“The technical requirements for these positions are changing constantly. And having that drive, having that passion to grow yourself and to keep up with these emerging technologies is a huge screening tool for me.”

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