Global manager, design and final assembly systems, materials and manufacturing research and advanced engineering, Ford Motor Co.
Big break: Led a team that developed a soy-based polyurethane foam for vehicle seats
Henry Ford would be proud of Cynthia Flanigan.
The founder of Ford Motor Co. famously touted the benefits of soybeans in manufacturing, even creating a "soybean car" complete with soybean-infused plastic body panels.
Flanigan, 43, has picked up on Ford's fascination with the bean, along with a host of other sustainable materials. She's part of a small team that has created car seats, gaskets and tires out of soybeans, wheat straw, dandelion and agave byproducts, helping Ford create environmentally friendly, cost-effective products.
"That's one aspect that really motivates me about my job. I love innovations," she told Automotive News. "It is really exciting to develop and deliver technologies that will impact customers' experiences. It's such a dynamic and exciting space. Whatever you can imagine, you can shape the future to make a difference."
After her first big project working with the soybean-based seats, which debuted on the 2008 Mustang, Flanigan turned to tires. She helped develop new lab test methods for tire analysis. She also has worked with rubber and was awarded nine patents for turning materials such as dandelion rubber and recycled carbon black into suspension pads, hoses and seals.
She came to Ford for a summer internship between getting her undergrad and master's degrees in materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"I was really impressed by my colleagues and teamwork approach," she said. "I loved how the company really highlighted and encouraged employees to work on innovations."
Beyond the environmentally friendly materials she's worked with, Flanigan said the future likely will include more additive manufacturing, such as 3-D printing. As Ford experiments with car-sharing and autonomous vehicles, customers' needs will change.
There will be new expectations, she said, and demands for privacy, cleanliness and customization.
"This just opens the door for using new manufacturing methods and making new designs that we weren't able to do before," she said.
-- Michael Martinez