Before she studied chemical engineering, Rebecca Liebert studied backyard engineering on the family farm. She helped her father mend electric fences to keep the pigs from wandering, cared for sick animals, fixed broken equipment, and mixed chemicals for pesticides.
Now PPG’s senior vice president of automotive OEM coatings, Liebert held on to those lessons of hard work and process management as she made a career in the chemical and energy industries.
Liebert will deliver a keynote on Giant Leaps: Leading in a Time of Transformation at the IndustryWeek Manufacturing & Technology Conference on April 2. In advance of her speech, she talked to IndustryWeek about supplier challenges as the automotive industry re-envisions itself, and IoT remakes the factory.
Tell me about some significant initiatives you’ve launched in your career.
If you ask somebody what Rebecca’s known for, it’s probably for putting in very strong processes and systems. One of the first big processes I got involved with early in my career was S&OP: supply and operations planning. That really took off in the late 90s, and it’s how corporations bridge what the customers are asking for, and what we actually make and ship. And that process, if done right, can propel a company—and if done wrong, it can sink a company. I’ve just used and propelled that process for almost 20 years now.
PPG has an S&OP; we’re working to drive improvement in that. And recently, I’ve taken over procurement responsibilities at PPG—you know, working to ensure that we have all the world-class procurement activities in place to have a fully integrated supply chain that can ensure the best service to our customers.
What challenges do you see around procurement?
Logistics costs and logistics availability have been challenged because everybody wants to buy from Amazon, and that’s making a shortage in the marketplace for folks to carry goods. And I think that’s only going to get worse. So getting your logistics in order is really important. It’s going to continue to be an area that will be difficult.
So, you have to be more nimble, be able to change things quicker and find new partners?
You have to have strong processes. It’s a lot of preparation to make sure you have everything ready to go when that carrier arrives. You book things a little bit in advance so you’re ready when you’ve called the booking to come pick up the order. You need to make sure that you have multiple carriers that are approved to carry your orders. In the chemical world, not every carrier can carry every type of chemical, so you have to make sure you have the right certifications and the right paperwork when you’re dealing with that complexity.
Are carriers moving delivery times around more than they used to?
I would say they’re more opportunistic than they used to be. When the carriers are really busy, they’ll take their prices up. We need to be very well-prepared so we can try to ship on times when the carriers typically aren’t as busy and we can perhaps get cheaper rates.
Can you talk about how disruption in the auto industry is affecting PPG as an automotive supplier? What are the changes affecting PPG the most?
The basic disruption right now is demand is soft. So many of our customers are taking more down time; they’re taking shifts off or they’re not working weekends. That obviously has us adjusting our production schedules, our demand schedules, our shipping schedules. That’s near-term. That should fix itself as demand picks back up. But longer term, clearly the disruption is going to be electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles, and in that respect we’re really gearing up our innovation activity to produce new products that can enable batteries to last longer, to be safer—and also enable cars to be safer with coatings for sensors and other things that are anti-cloudy and anti-contamination so they’ll keep your sensors clear and free. So we’re developing a lot of products in the safety enhancement world for our customers and our future customers.
Are you seeing that you need a different skill set from researchers, or is it the same people just researching new products?
In fact, we do need some different skill sets. We have not typically had sales people or commercial people calling on some of the battery manufacturers, or certain interior component or sensor manufacturers. So we need to staff up with external-facing commercial or sales people that can have those conversations, and have them in a knowledgeable way. From inside, the research piece, I say 80% of what we need to do can be done with the people that we have, because surface chemistry is surface chemistry. But we are bringing in experts in certain areas to augment that basic knowledge of chemistry that we have.
Who would you bring in?
People who have already formulated for thermal management practices or for specific coatings in the anti-slip or anti-cloud perspective. Most of what we have done historically has been a lot more around color, or protection, anti-corrosion. So there are other expertises we need. Think about nonstick cookware. That’s an anti-slip coating that PPG hasn’t historically made.
How do manufacturing companies need to think differently and operate differently?
My take is, manufacturing companies have historically thought that they made products. But customers do not want to buy products. They want to buy a solution. So in the auto industry, the customer, the GM or Ford, doesn’t want to buy a pail of paint. If we could supply it to them, they’d like us to sell them a painted car, to be perfectly honest. They’re rather not deal with the paint themselves. So I think manufacturers have to think about: What is the solution that the customer is looking to have eventually, and then how do they move their product from a product to a solution, so the customer has the full solution they’re looking for. We’re working to do that every day. We’ve just enhanced our service organization to be able to provide a much larger solution set to our customer base.
What does PPG have to do to stay relevant in the digital age?
We have a lot of service people in the field. So enabling them to really leverage all the data that comes off our plants and our customer plants will really take that to the next level. So tying the solution to the data that connects it all together is really where I think the whole industry will have to go.
What sort of solutions is PPG introducing?
A simple one is PPG would normally sell a tank or a tote or some type of container of Electrocoat. And our customers would load that into their tank on their premises and they would do the Electrocoat-- which is the corrosion protection process—themselves. We now, for one of the OEMS, put an Electrocoat equipment into their facility and we do that coating process for them in their facility. We don’t just sell them the Electrocoat now. We sell them the finished product, ultimately.
Some want it, some don’t’, and some are sort of trying to figure out how they might make the shift from buying the product to buying the solution. So it will be an evolution, and everybody won’t want it, for sure. There’s definitely segmentation in the marketplace. But there will be a group that wants it.
One of your causes is encouraging more young women to consider careers in STEM fields. Was there anybody who steered you toward engineering?
I always was really good at math. I just remember back in 4th and 5th grade, I’d try and finish the whole math book the first couple weeks of school. And then when I got into high school, science and chemistry classes were everything to me.
Nobody really steered me toward it. It was where my passion was, and I just loved it. When I got to college, I actually started as a chemistry major, and I studied with this crew of chemical engineers who were in some of my classes. And they said, “Why are you doing just straight chemistry? You know if you take a chemical engineering curriculum you can make a heck of a lot more money. And I said, “Well, I’m all about money.” I grew up on a farm. We didn’t have a ton of money.
I went over to the chemical engineering department almost that very next day and introduced myself to the dean. He said, well it just so happens, we have engineering scholarships. Talk about even more motivation! I got even more scholarship money. I basically got my full tuition paid for because I went into engineering. And I never looked back.