In this interview, Rebecca Jamieson talks with Ernest Nicholas, the senior vice president and chief supply chain officer for Rockwell Automation. Ernest speaks about how his many connections across UW-Madison contributed to his professional success, the value of lifelong learning, and the urgent need for engineering and the supply chain to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview on our podcast.
Rebecca Jamieson: What was your path into manufacturing systems engineering and what made you choose that field?
Ernest Nicolas: I started off as an industrial engineering (IE) major. I went to undergrad at a school called Kettering University. It was a co-op school, and I had a couple co-ops that were industrial engineering. I wanted to do something that was a little bit more technical, but I still leaned into what I’d say are the core of the fundamentals of IE. That’s where Manufacturing Systems Engineering (MSE) first became something that I considered so that I could have the same core of IE but have a little bit more of a technical background with some hands-on experience.
I changed my major while at Kettering University to MSE, and I pursued several internship co-ops with General Motors as an MSE undergrad. Upon graduation, I stayed at General Motors for a couple of years. General Motors used to have a fellowship program, and at the time, they would pay for your tuition and offer you a salary, and then you would come back into the organization kind of time-for-time.
I was awarded the fellowship, and I really thought about if I wanted to go into computer engineering or computer science, but I wanted to branch off into something different. I had the opportunity to meet and learn more about Dr. Rajan Suri and the MSE program. And quite honestly, what interested me was really Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM) and his view on getting away from thinking of everything as cost and looking at it specifically as related to time. I never thought it was a panacea, but I thought it was a different way of thinking. I decided at that point, even after considering multiple schools, to pursue graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, primarily because of Dr. Suri’s program.
Rebecca Jamieson: You have so many connections across UW-Madison, which makes you really unique. You were a student in the MSE and MBA programs, and you did this quite groundbreaking project at the Center for Quick Response Manufacturing with Dr. Suri, as you mentioned. And you’re also currently part of the UW E-Business Consortium. How would you say that your UW connections affected your career or contributed to your professional success?
Ernest Nicolas: You know, it’s funny you say that because I did my project with the QRM, as you said, and it was on POLCA, and I did it with Rockwell Automation. So there’s always some irony here, right? I mentioned that I worked for General Motors, and I had a fellowship. I think I stayed at GM after graduation for four-and-a half years or so, but then I moved to Rockwell Automation.
When I made the choice to come to Rockwell, I got a call from a friend who was also an alumni of the MSE program and the UW School of Business. He called me and said, “You know, Rockwell’s doing the type of things we studied in school. Why don’t you come join me?” I was hesitant at first, but I had an understanding of Rockwell from my time as a student at UW. So ultimately, I left GM and joined Rockwell.
So here I am 15 years later, still at Rockwell, and now leading the supply chain for the organization. So it definitely influenced me significantly because I was considering multiple roles as I was thinking about leaving GM. Ultimately, my time at Rockwell working on the QRM project was what really made the difference and influenced me to come.
Rebecca Jamieson: That’s wonderful. It sounds like there was really a door that opened for you because of that class you took with Dr. Suri. How would you say that class impacted your thinking about manufacturing systems and strategy?
Ernest Nicolas: Everything that I had learned up to that point was really revolving around Lean. What I took away from Dr. Suri, beyond just the QRM class, is that toolbox mindset—thinking about how you can solve problems in different ways. And it’s very applicable to solving problems today.
The way of Lean Manufacturing is still strong. You can also say Quick Response Manufacturing is still strong. But when I think about it from a supply chain perspective, given the different challenges, the macroeconomic challenges, and the pandemic, you’ve got to think of supply chains significantly differently than they did in the past. So again, I think it’s that toolbox mindset of finding the right tool for the right situation which is something that I honestly feel I’ve held onto for years.
Rebecca Jamieson: As we all know, supply chains are having some really major issues because of the pandemic. What do you see as the biggest challenges for industry right now, as it relates to supply chains?
Ernest Nicolas: You know, there are so many challenges. That’s hard to pinpoint because it’s going to vary by industry. We’ve never experienced the multitude of these challenges simultaneously.
I think that the biggest challenge is how do I manage or work through all of these different ongoing concerns? If I see it from a planning perspective, we’re all having to address lead times and think about how we manage that and the consequences of that. We have to think about substitution or redesign. If I think from a sourcing perspective, I’ve got so much inflation. I’ve got product that’s not available. I’ve got volatility being introduced. If I see it manufacturing-wise, the labor shortages are significant in trying to find people. And if you do find people well, the inflation is real, right? Labor and wages have gone up. People are paying premiums to get employees in through sign-on or referral bonuses. And the lack of availability of transportation is also significant, and that ties into whether you’re looking at ocean, air freight, or you’re looking at a truckload.
It’s all a challenge at this point—trying to work through and manage through all of those different elements is creating chaos in the supply chain. I think there’s just a multitude of challenges that people that do this work are faced with and that we’re having to work through and will be working through for some time.
Rebecca Jamieson: Given the level of chaos and the amount of challenges that you’re naming, where do you see supply chain optimization going? And how would you advise individuals who work in this area?
Ernest Nicolas: You know, it’s a great question. Supply chain optimization will continue to be very necessary. I think the levers that are pulled in solving different optimization scenarios will have to be different.
Where we used to optimize inventory per se, to get the mathematic equation done, considering only a few variables, given the factors that have been introduced or reintroduced through the pandemic, we’re going to need to think about buffering inventory a little bit. So the optimization may not be as much of an optimization for working capital reduction, but for right-sizing working capital, right-sizing inventory levels, right-sizing the decisions that you have to make within the supply chain. I definitely think there’s more than a little bit of room.
I have committed within my own organization to supply chain network design. And that truly is thinking about not only how much, but where do you put it and how do you position—whether it’s inventory or factory locations. How do you design your footprint to support a given product? That in itself to me is the direct consequence of all the situations that we’re dealing with today.
Rebecca Jamieson: Do you foresee the current supply chain challenges being short or long-term, and is there a way that companies can better prepare for this uncertain logistics environment without building warehouses full of inventory?
Ernest Nicolas: I think some of that’s based on your industry, and when I think about our industry—in particular, automation—it’s going to continue. And the main reason is that while we’re seeing very healthy growth in demand, just because we honestly feel that we’re on the front end of what is a multi-year expansion of, of our industry, we are also heavily dependent upon the electronic components market and the semiconductor industry. That is very challenging at the moment, and there’s not a lot of new capacity being brought online relative to semiconductors. So there is very much a shortage of availability and that is planned to continue well into 2023.
So, from that perspective, for me and those that are also dependent upon some form of semiconductor, this is going to go on for some time and it’s going to be an ongoing challenge while other areas that may be more mechanically dependent may see inflationary challenges, but the availability should not be as much of a challenge. You invest in the capacity, you’re able to then follow through and support your customers accordingly. There’s not as much of an availability concern. It then may shift the labor or one of the other areas that I mentioned to you earlier.
Rebecca Jamieson: In addition to your many professional accomplishments, you also serve on the board of directors for the Milwaukee Urban League. I was wondering if you could talk more about your experience with the Urban League and specifically what changes you would like to see to make engineering a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive field.
Ernest Nicolas: I joined the Urban League board four years ago. Something that I’ve always been inspired to do is giving back and paying it forward. And I think that organization, what it stands for the whole notion and mantra or empowering communities and saving lives, to me is very important, and it’s something that’s near and dear.
I truly believe in the leader that we have here in the Milwaukee Urban League, I truly believe in the mission and just the continued expansion of the impact and influence that they can have in the greater Milwaukee area.
Now with that status, you can talk about the diversity in this field. In this space, there is a wealth of opportunity. The diversity and the inclusion that exists in several supply chain functions, is very, very limited. I think it’s the direct result of a lack of exposure. You know, people don’t see supply chain as an attractive space or an opportunity for them to advance from a career standpoint. They’re looking more at finance, marketing, or sales. I still don’t think there’s a significant opportunity to introduce people earlier, to give them a better understanding of what the potential is for supply chain careers.
I can tell you, I myself was not focused on supply chain coming up as an engineer. It wasn’t something that I had thought I’d find myself doing, but ultimately, as I got to spend more time in it, I got to understand how supply chains impact organizations, how they serve organizations, how critical they are to companies, and that’s when it started to become more attractive—when I started to really understand the business impact that the supply chain has, and the function it can have on an organization. That to me is what we don’t sell to those that are coming into either business schools or in high school, or honestly K-8 at this point as well.
Rebecca Jamieson: You’re raising so many good points, especially the need for kids to be exposed to these options for career paths sooner and to really understand what supply chains are and why they matter. I also loved how you framed it as “a wealth of opportunities,” and I think that’s generous, considering that engineering and supply chain still remain pretty white-male-dominated fields. I’m curious to hear what your suggestions would be to schools, universities, and businesses for how they might engage kids younger and actually reach a wider segment of the population who might find this a meaningful career path later on.
Ernest Nicolas: I think that organizations have done a wonderful job over the last several years of engaging in STEM activity. But STEM activity is focused specifically on how to create more engineers. I think we’ve got to be able to do the same from a supply chain perspective and ask, how do I get people more engaged in the supply chain?
You talked about this being very heavily dominated by white males. The reality of this is, and I stand by it—you’ve got to see it to be it. Whether I am a female, whether I am a Black male, Asian male, Latinx male—I’ve got to see people in these positions to know that I have an opportunity.
The reality of this is we’ve got to be accountable to being intentional, to make this happen. Being intentional about DEI is the only thing that is going to drive change so that things start to literally look different. Being intentional means there has to be some accountability. And making the accountability matters through metrics that matter—acknowledging it, tying it to performance, and being certain that from leadership down through middle-level managers there’s an understanding that things need to change. Things need to change relative to how they look for employees from an attraction perspective, how they develop employees, and the culture that’s being put in place to retain employees.
All three of those areas are critical, which means you’ve got to open up your mind, you have to engage in different environments, and you’ve just got to think differently from how you have in the past. It’s not convenient. It’s not easy. But there isn’t any business objective—and I say business objective because DEI needs to be a business objective—there isn’t any business objective that’s easy. They’re all hard.
I’m hopeful that if organizations like mine continue down the path that they’re on, they can drive more accountability and be more intentional to improve DEI from an end-to-end standpoint.
I take very seriously as a chief supply chain officer the fact that I am a C-suite executive, but I am also Black. I’m part of an underrepresented group, and I know what that means. There are a lot of people that look at me and for them, I am hope. I am a chance. I am a potential opportunity. A potential for their career. They say, “You know, if Ernest can get there, I can get there as well.”
You talked about how white-male dominated the field is at this point. The more diverse we make it, the more other younger students will start to look at this field as a potential for them, and they’ll say to themselves, “Well, I see Ernest or I see Rebecca, or I see someone else that looks like me, and that means I’ve got a chance to be successful in this. I can do this.” That’s what I want to be certain I give off, and I have to own that. And I recognize that’s an additional responsibility that I’ve taken on. It’s an additional weight. It’s an additional pressure, but I definitely think it’s necessary. Someone did it for me. At some point, I saw an executive and said, “You know what? I can be that executive.” It was something I aspired to become. I want to be certain that I can also be an inspiration for those that look like me and that want to be successful in the same area and the same field.
Rebecca Jamieson: Thank you so much. I completely agree with you. Switching gears slightly, as someone who has demonstrated such a clear commitment to lifelong learning, what advice do you have for our grad students, alumni, or industry partners on why it’s important to keep learning and staying curious?
Ernest Nicolas: You know, I’ve found that the fundamentals don’t change, but the business dynamics continue to evolve. The only way to continue to be prepared for these significantly shifting business dynamics is to be a lifelong learner. You’re going to have to understand that toolbox that I spoke about earlier, right?
All of us amass more knowledge year after year. We’re getting better and better. We’re seeing how to solve problems or figuring out how to solve problems ourselves. The only way to stay sharp is to be certain that periodically you dip your toe back into education, you dip your toe back into these fundamentals and understand how they can be applied differently with different tools, in order to produce a better outcome.
I firmly believe in that, so it can’t stop. It should not stop. You have to continue learning and evolving and developing yourself. Whether that’s reading, whether it’s having someone that is teaching you, or that is proctoring a session for you. But ultimately, you’ve got to find a way to continue learning and evolving yourself, evolving and developing your skills.
Rebecca Jamieson: That’s wonderful. So lastly, I just want to give you a chance to share anything that I haven’t covered.
Ernest Nicolas: We talked a bit about QRM, we talked about Lean Manufacturing and the tools of optimizing what is inside the four walls. As we’ve worked through the last several years, there’ve been different challenges that have forced us to think differently about how we manage the supply chain outside of the four walls. If I think back to a few years ago, we were all talking about the trade wars and the tariffs and protectionism.
At that time, we were starting to see some noise around constrained markets. It was forcing us to move away from the Lean supply chain to a more agile supply chain and start to think about things a little bit differently. As we’ve stepped into the pandemic and the different challenges of the pandemic, you take those initial observations that I mentioned before of the trade war, protectionism, constrained markets, and you layer on the havoc that the pandemic has brought forth—that’s forcing us to think about resiliency. And I’ve said on many occasions, within my own organization, agility is much more an offensively minded strategy while resiliency is much more defensively minded.
That’s taking us away from Lean Manufacturing as we know it, taking us away from lean supply chain, and you have to think about what is the balance of agility and resiliency. Those are buzz words in supply chain, but they are very critical to understanding how we’re going to solve for the business problems of today.
So we just have to continue to move beyond what is optimized, get every cost that we can get out of this system, and think about how we design the network to manage through potential disruptions, new changes, new policies, geopolitical challenges, and think about what this means to us from an integrated supply chain perspective.
Rebecca Jamieson: Thank you so much Ernest. Good luck with all the chaos!
Ernest Nicolas: Thank you. It was wonderful to talk with you.
Ernest Nicolas is senior vice president and chief supply chain officer for Rockwell Automation. In this global leadership role, Ernest has overall responsibility of the end-to-end supply chain for Rockwell. He joined the team in 2006 as a Lean, Six Sigma Project Manager and has held several roles of increased responsibility within the Integrated Supply Chain (ISC) functions, overseeing the process of planning, sourcing, producing and delivering Rockwell products and services to customers.
Prior to his current role, Ernest most recently served as Senior Vice President, Operations & Engineering Services (now known as ISC), and before that, he was Vice President, Global Supply Chain. Before joining Rockwell Automation, Ernest held supply chain, manufacturing engineering and manufacturing operations positions with the General Motors Corporation.
Ernest holds a Bachelor’s degree in Manufacturing Systems Engineering from Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, an MBA in Operations Management and Master’s degree in Manufacturing Systems Engineering, both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also a member of the UW E-Business Consortium.
Ernest is a member of the Executive Leadership Council. He was named to Empower’s 2019 and 2020 100 Ethnic Minority Executives Role Model List. In 2020, Ernest was named to Savoy Magazine’s Most Influential Black Executives in Corporate America. Ernest also serves on the Board of Directors for the Milwaukee Urban League. He is an Executive Advisory Board member for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Supply Chain Management program within the School of Business.