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Diana Mäkel is not afraid of a challenge. She chose her early technical studies because they were the most difficult she could find, and she freely admits that her brain works faster than most. Despite this, she has the rare gift of being able to explain technical concepts so clearly to non-techies. 

Diana has essentially been with one company her entire career, starting with FEI Company and staying on after it was acquired by Thermo Fisher in 2016. She currently holds the role of Innovation Lead of Digital Services. Being with the same company has not hindered her career. She has continually evolved her role and enjoys the autonomy that has come from years of proving her skills. We sat down with Diana to discuss her background and how she uses data as a service, as well as the growing diversity within her team.

Diana Makel-1

From your background, it sounds like you have never backed down from a challenge.

I love to solve puzzles. I was bored in high school, so I hunted for the most difficult subject to choose. I found out that at TU/e, you could do a double study of mathematics and applied physics. That was the most difficult one I could find.

Do you have a theory on why you’ve excelled at math and science?

My dad has a chemistry background. He was in computers, IT when it first started to become IT. I know how to cook and do arts and crafts from my mom's side, but I know how to fix the electronics in the house from my dad. When I was eight, we had a computer in the household that I could use.

You started your career with FEI in product engineering and have moved around since then.

Yes, I started in product engineering. My focus was on new products. For example, to get the right stuff developed, get it implemented in the factory and also make sure the supplier can deal with that. One of my projects was to introduce the latest and greatest microscope at the Microscopy and Microanalysis Fair in the U.S. That was when they asked me to join R&D as a project lead.

I was project lead for large microscope modules, developing multidisciplinary elements – the software, physics, mechanical and electronics – along with external suppliers.

It was hard to imagine what kind of microscope Diana meant, and when she showed us, it definitely wasn’t like the microscope we used in high school chemistry class. The size of the microscope was impressive and its stats were equally so. She highlighted these stats as we did the tour.

This large microscope can magnify a million times. The sample is three and a half millimeters in diameter and 400 nanometers thick. From the top, you get 300,000 volts that shoot through the sample. Below, we have cameras that create the image. You can see individual atoms, just to give you a little bit of perspective.

We have another microscope for frozen biological samples for the life sciences and pharmaceutical market. You have to make sure the sample gets into the microscope under those same temperatures. It has to stay at 140 Kelvin or below to survive. Our machine can insert the samples continuously at that super, super low temperature. That’s tricky. Nobody else can do that.

How did your career evolve after you became a project lead?

Well, after a time, they wanted project leads to just be Excel managers and PowerPointers. As you can sense, I love the technology part and project leads were not supposed to do the technology anymore. So, I went back to engineering and then I was asked to join service because I was very good at troubleshooting.

It was like, can you teach people how to do troubleshooting because you have this logic in your brain? But in the semiconductor market, it was easier to train people on how to replace parts than how to troubleshoot. So, we started to automate this troubleshooting.

Our microscopes generate data. They take measurements of voltages and currents and temperatures and states of all the valves. But we saw that we could also predict stuff through algorithms. Based on data, we can predict failure and get insight into how a machine is being used. We can get operator error. We have usage profiles, so we see where the bottlenecks are. And one of the things we're now looking at is benchmarking so we can see how the systems compare to each other.

This is how the whole value-add service came from, where I am now.

Wow! So, you were part of a whole new revenue stream within the service division?

Yes. It came from the idea to use data in a smart way. That started around 2014 with some big customers that wanted more uptime. They had inexperienced engineers, and the way to close that gap was to let software algorithms do the troubleshooting for them.

We sell customers our microscopes and on top of that, we also sell these services to be more efficient. We can see that one machine is doing 10 samples per hour and another is doing 15 samples per hour. Then we look at why it is not the same and we can coach a customer on what they can do.

Now, I get a chance to do technology scouting. I look at what our customers are looking for next and I explore new opportunities where you can do these value-added services. I look at what information would help customers be more effective, even if that is beyond a microscope in upstream and downstream processes. A microscope is one step in the process. I’m trying to broaden the scope of these value-added services and see how we can help our customers be more successful.

Thermo Fisher works in three fields: semiconductors, life sciences and material sciences. For the semiconductor industry, if the lithography business and ASML grow, does your company also grow?

Yes, we have the same customers as ASML. If the customer builds a new factory, they have to buy 40 of their machines and five of ours. We fill the same factory, but Thermo Fisher is in the verification of the production process. We can measure what the ASML tools are doing. Our microscopes are used for product development, quality control of the production line and failure analysis if something goes wrong.

Switching gears, do you think there's been an evolution for women in the lab and the manufacturing industry?

Well, you should see our department here. It’s now one-third women. We have one from Turkey, one from China, one from Mongolia, one from Korea, one from Russia and only two from the Netherlands. I have a whole team of highly educated science-y women.

When I started, I was the only woman on our team, so it really grew.

What has changed? And what have you and Thermo Fisher been doing?

I've definitely been promoting it on my team. And since Thermo Fisher acquired FEI in 2016, diversity has been higher on the agenda.

I'm part of the company’s Women's Empowerment Business Resource Group (BRG). We’ve found that in the normal workforce and the top layer, the ratio is pretty okay for a technical company. It’s around 30%. But there's, like, an empty layer in between, typically when women are around 50 years old. So, we looked at why people get promoted and that's typically for business acumen. One of the things the women's BRG is trying to build is business acumen for a larger population. 

We ask our business leaders to discuss different topics and talk about their experiences. We ask people to talk about change management or the impact of marketing. We watch TED talks together on specific topics and discuss them. We want people to better understand how the business works.

Strategy and business sense give you a higher chance of promotion than your real skills. You don't get promoted for your technical knowledge. You get promoted for strategic insights.

How did you develop your business skills to advance through the company?

During my studies, I did twelve or more subjects in the business department: marketing, business economics, intellectual property, human factors in safety and reliability and international negotiation. I didn’t have the ambition at the time to go in that direction, but I wanted to be able to talk the language so I could pitch my technical ideas. I also just took some training at TIAS Business School on design thinking.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I've been with the company for 20 years. That's long and a lot of people say, “You should do something else.” But I love the autonomy and the freedom I have here. I have three kids, so I also need time to balance that.

I've already been able to write my own job description three times. They know what I can do and I get a lot of room to do what I enjoy, like explore new ideas and develop new business strategies. I can go where I think the opportunities lie and I appreciate that.

We’ve learned so much today. This is really cutting-edge technology you are involved in.

Yes, the hardware is all state-of-the-art, but the cutting edge is using the data of the system.

The microscope knows things the customer doesn't know. The customer doesn't notice a thermal leak but sees the image getting bad. We protect the quality and we predict failure. We measure slow-trending things that hinder quality or throughput based on data. My job is using data to increase efficiency and quality and improve the process. That's my cutting-edge stuff.