In 1960, Alan Male was hired as a full-time faculty member at the University of Birmingham, England. Over 50 years later, after a decorated career in both industry and academia, Dr. Male will retire at semester’s end. We sat down with the eminent professor to hear his reflections on a life devoted to manufacturing.
Q: When you graduated from high school, what were your career ambitions?
A.M.: I graduated from high school at age 16 and although I had the formal academic qualifications to go to university, I was too young and I wasn’t interested. So I went into industry. I took an industrial job at 16, but eventually listened to the guys I was working for who were saying I should be at the university. Because of my qualifications, I was exempt from the first year and got my bachelor’s degree in three years. At that point, I was enjoying higher education, so I started a Ph.D. program. When I was two years into the program, my thesis advisor left the university and his job became available. I had the temerity to apply and they had the stupidity to hire me. So I was a 23 year old faculty member at the University of Birmingham, England, teaching without a Ph.D. That was 1960.
Q: At what point did you shift from academia to industry?
A.M.: I had been teaching for two years by the time I actually got my Ph.D. I taught at the University of Birmingham for another five years and, in 1968, had the opportunity to come to the United States. My wife and I and our two kids came over with the intention of only staying for two years. We never went back. I spent three years working at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as a contractor for Westinghouse, running their experimental metals processing facility with a group of technicians. In all, I spent 24 years with Westinghouse doing industrial research and interacting with their manufacturing plants. That was my joy. That was what I wanted to do…but I still had this bug for teaching. So every opportunity I got, I taught at—various universities, usually short courses. I would also teach courses within Westinghouse. I was one of their key instructors for their Total Quality Program. But Westinghouse got into dire financial straits, had to compress their workforce, and I was required to take early retirement.
Q: How did you end up at the University of Kentucky?
A.M.: After “retiring,” I turned around and got another job—this time with a small high-tech company called Concurrent Technologies. They had 70 employees when I started, and eventually it grew to 1600 employees. After about four years, I felt I’d had enough of that environment and was seriously thinking of retiring for good. I was ready to do a little fishing and hunting when I got a letter from Dean Lester. In the letter, he asked if I would be interested in applying for the job of Director of the Center for Robotics and Manufacturing Systems at UK. I talked to my wife about it and we decided to go for it, make a new start. I applied and got the job. That was in 1996. Although I had a teaching bent, I really hadn’t thought about going into academia again until I got this letter from Dean Lester.
Q: What do you consider your greatest successes as a professor?
A.M.: Every student that went through ME151. It’s a manufacturing engineering class required of all undergraduate mechanical engineering students. I have had quite a number of students who became interested in manufacturing, hopefully because of that class. I often get kids in my office wanting to do an independent study program with me—that’s why I had three this semester even though I’m supposed to be on sabbatical! I have taken my 30 years of industrial experience and instilled at least some of the students with the kind of enthusiasm that I have for manufacturing. I consider that my greatest success.
Also, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers has an institution called the North American Manufacturing Research Institution. Every year they have an international conference that is usually hosted in an academic institution. When I was at Westinghouse I never had the opportunity to host one of those conferences. Well, in 2000, about three years after I had arrived at UK, we arranged and hosted a North American Manufacturing Research Institution conference here in Lexington. It was a big success as far as I was concerned, and we received much positive feedback.
Q: What are you going to do in retirement?
A.M.: I’m going to miss teaching and the stimulating contact with many undergraduates! Of course, I’ll still do independent study programs as an emeritus professor. I have an independent manufacturing consulting company called Anvil Technologies, LLC, so I’ll stay up on manufacturing. I’m hoping to do a little fishing and some carpentry. My wife and I might travel some within the US. When we moved here 15 years ago, my wife and I were dead set on moving back to Pittsburgh eventually. We’ve now decided we’re not going to do that. We like the Lexington area, and we’re going to stay as long as we can.