Q&A with New Academic Director of Professional Master’s in Manufacturing Leadership

Aaron Stebner, Ph.D., shares his perspective on the importance of the program and its impact on the workforce 

April 29, 2021 | By GTPE Communications
Aaaron Stebner, Academic Director of Professional Master’s in Manufacturing Leadership

Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE) has appointed Aaron Stebner, Ph.D., as academic director of the Professional Master’s in Manufacturing Leadership (PMML). 

Stebner is an Associate Professor of the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering and the School of Materials Science and Engineering at the College of Engineering. He is known for cross-disciplinary work with a mechanical engineering core, and for incorporating the latest fundamental scientific discoveries into practical, usable tools for innovating engineering applications for companies and the government. 

“Aaron exemplifies a wealth of industry experience coupled with a forward-thinking mentality, the precise combination needed to maintain an innovative curriculum that develops confident, resilient manufacturing leaders,” says Nisha Botchwey, GTPE’s associate dean of Academic Programs. “I look forward to working with him to continue to grow this program, as well as other academic options that support this critical industry.” 

As academic director of PMML, Stebner’s priority will be maintaining the program’s solid foundation in management and manufacturing fundamentals while expanding it to include essential business and critical-thinking skills that graduates can depend on to adapt in our rapidly changing world.  

“Aaron has significant expertise in the field translating research into effective, practical solutions for business and industry” said Larry Jacob, Georgia Tech College of Engineering interim dean and associate dean for academic affairs. “That experience coupled with his desire to develop dynamic, well-rounded leaders leaves me confident that he will lead this program into the future.” 

In a recent interview, Stebner shared his views on the program and the role as academic director. 

What makes you most excited as academic director of PMML? What do you see as the future of the program? 

With change perpetually on the horizon, I am committed to making sure the program is just as dynamic and flexible as the manufacturing industry itself. We will not abandon a solid foundation in management and manufacturing fundamentals, but rather innovate our curriculum to continue to teach those fundamentals through modern day examples and case studies. We want to ensure graduates develop a mindset that embraces change alongside the assurances of financial and technological practicality. We want to give our graduates confidence that they can be the industry leaders that move the field forward.  

How do you see this program supporting the future industry workforce and its leaders? 

There is no doubt that our national leaders have realized that manufacturing is one of the most essential elements to both our local economy and the global economy. COVID-19 underscored the importance of innovation and adaptability to keep up with changes and challenges such as shortages in medical supplies. The opportunities to bring current ideas to manufacturing technologies and supply chains are widening, and I will make sure that this program positions our graduates to be the leaders that capitalize on these opportunities.  

For example, anyone can take an online course on machine learning and learn to use a python library to crunch a data set and get an answer. However, few understand how to evaluate if machine learning should be used in a manufacturing problem, not to mention evaluating the technology itself, moving forward with a cost/benefit analysis, or reviewing if the machine learning implantation plan was successful once complete. I am committed to making sure our curriculum gives graduates the experience they need to answer these questions, enabling their businesses to lead the way instead of waiting on the sidelines. Our goal will not be to make our graduates machine learning experts, but to teach them how to interact with and assess guidance from experts and to give them the skills to develop business plans for evaluation and implementation. 

What industry challenges do you see in this current environment, and how can PMML students help solve them? 

Rather than challenges, I see the dynamic nature of our current manufacturing economies as opportunities for current ideas and technologies to be welcomed into industry. Cybersecurity is one challenge that must be embraced and faced. While the fundamentals of cybersecurity implementations may be entrusted to IT and computer science professionals, sometimes the best approach in manufacturing is to implement a physical security measure that mitigates the need for cybersecurity. Since IT professionals might not understand the implications and nuances specific to the industry, it is important for manufacturing leaders to also be engaged in the decision process. We plan to incorporate case studies and technology examples into our curriculum to prepare our graduates to participate effectively in conversations and decisions about cybersecurity among other current challenges, such as adapting to remote working environments and changes in supply chains. 

What is your message to current and prospective PMML students? What would you like them to know about the program and about you? 

 I’m excited about the PMML program. In my own professional training, I completed a Graduate Certificate in Management for Scientists and Engineers from the Kellogg School of Management, and it’s been one of the most valuable experiences in my career development. The formal training in management from a business school has given me a foundation and understanding of concrete concepts, methods, and models for building and leading teams.  

When I later embraced a career in academia, I found myself in a position early in my career which demanded expert leadership and management. In less than 18 months, my research group had grown by 10X in terms of both funding and number of employees.  

While that sounds fantastic, I could never have anticipated the stress and pressure that would come with such rapid growth. All the sudden 30 people were depending on me not only for technical leadership and guidance, but also for their paychecks! That foundation of formal training in management was invaluable in helping me lead and manage both people and financial models. More importantly, it has also allowed me to communicate and relate with the fiscal management leaders and technical decision makers within the organizations I’ve worked for. 

I’m so glad to have the opportunity to now pass along the values I’ve realized and experiences I’ve gained in both management and engineering by leading this degree program at Georgia Tech. My hope is to help others who want to bridge the technical with management in manufacturing technologies, businesses, and careers.

Stebner assumed the role as academic director of PMML in Fall of 2020, succeeding Krista Walton, Ph.D., who recently accepted the position of associate dean for research and innovation at the College of Engineering.   

For more information, about the Professional Master’s in Manufacturing Leadership visit our website