Alumni Who've Made a Difference - Neal Vance

Neal B. Vance, BSE (EE), Class of '71

I was an ex-GI and before college, worked in industry for two 2 years, so by the time I graduated, I was 28 years old. When I came to Ann Arbor, I was married with a 2-year old boy, and while a Junior, our daughter was born at the UofM Hospital. We lived on North Campus in married housing, and when weather permitted, I rode my bike to campus. All my classes in those days were at central campus.

I was originally enrolled as a Mechanical Engineering student.  As was normal during the end of the Sophomore year, students meet with an Academic Advisor to verify their program. I was scheduled to meet with Professor Quackenbush, but a Professor Richard Voltz was there, and said that he was filling in for Professor Quackenbush who was away.

As Professor Voltz reviewed my transcript, he noted how well I had done in math and physics, and what a keen insight I had in the "realm of the invisible". He suggested it might be a better fit to pursue Electrical rather than Mechanical Engineering. I'm not sure if it was the glowing accolades or the logic of it all, but I was sold, and left his office and went directly to the Assistant Dean's office to change my program.

A year later I found that Professor Voltz was an EE Professor and advisor, and suspect he was doing a bit of recruiting for the EE Department.  Should have seen that coming with a name like Voltz!

Before coming to Michigan Engineering, while in the Navy, I was awarded a "fleet" appointment as a Midshipman at the Naval Academy. During my Plebe (freshman) year the reality hit home that the military wasn't for me, so I went back into the enlisted ranks and finished out my tour and then went to work for General Motors in Michigan as a draftsman and research technician.

Being a Nebraska farm boy, I knew a thing or two about mechanics, and did real well in the advanced manufacturing lab. I worked with a few young engineers from Purdue, General Motors Institute, and MSU, and while I always respected these young GIT's (grads in training), I found that when it came to common sense mechanics, they were learning more from me than I from them. I became the go-to guy in the lab.

One payday, I was getting up from my desk heading out to the lab, and took a shortcut across the adjoining desk of the GIT from Purdue who sat next to me. I could not help but notice that his paycheck was lying open in the open center drawer of his desk. I discreetly took a quick sideways glance, and had a life-changing moment. 

After some agonizing self-incrimination, I came to realize that industry places its future with young engineers, and they recruit these future business leaders from engineering colleges, and if I wanted to realize any leadership contribution in my life, I would need to get my degree. From that moment on, I could not have been more focused or determined. It was spring, and my goal was to be enrolled by fall in the best engineering school that would have me.

I was accepted to every engineering school I applied, including Michigan. I debated on my choices for a week, and kept my eyes and ears open to what people had to say about engineering colleges. I came to realize that it could only be Michigan; everything pointed in that direction. By the time I had made my decision, I became humbled that I had been accepted by one of the finest engineering schools in the country.

It was interesting the similarities being at the Naval Academy, and at Michigan Engineering.  The colors were Blue and Gold/Maize and Blue. And exams were given under the Honor Code with no proctors in the room; exactly the same. And English was taught in the Engineering School.  When I was at the Academy, a football player named Roger Staubach went on to win the Heisman Trophy, and during my Junior year at Michigan, we got a new football coach by the name of Glenn E. "Bo" Schembechler. The rest was history. It was a great time. Great traditions both.

After I graduated from Michigan I returned to the same GM division where I worked in the lab as a technician. I skipped the GIT phase and went immediately to work in manufacturing engineering. I never required to be validated as a Michigan grad, nor vindicate my decision to go to Michigan, but that Michigan degree forever changed my life; doors opened, challenges were offered, leadership was given, and a satisfying and enduring career has been the result.

I am a Renaissance man; curiosity and wonderment at nature and exploring the unknown. I've owned three companies, and have a half-dozen inventions living inside automobiles, computer cabinets, and manufacturing machines, I'm an ex-pilot and ex-speed junky. I designed a super-precision manufacturing grinder in 1981 (10 years out of Michigan Engineering) still being built and sold world-wide today. The grinder looks like something out of a Star Wars movie, completely different from what was being designed at the time. The grinder company who gave me that job did so on faith; neither they nor I had ever designed or built anything like that before. And part of that faith was based on that I was a Michigan Electrical Engineering grad!

My goals today are to pick projects that have a direct human benefit. It just works, and for reasons I can't completely explain. One thing I know; any project - any enterprise, will hit snags and delays and unexpected interruptions. If the goal is indeed important to another human being, that fact seems to get me through the delays and interruptions; it takes me out of the equation.  Somebody is depending on this thing getting done, and that is a very powerful incentive.

My current project and company produces a small laboratory device that sits on a lab bench in front of a lab technician (mostly young women) that automatically takes the caps off of test tubes, and then automatically puts the cap back on, to an exact torque. It's a tiny niche market, but came out of my work in robotic automation in biological/chemical analytical labs. The technicians were removing and reapplying hundreds of caps everyday by hand; the work is pure drudgery, causes hand/wrist injury, and the manual torque applied to the cap is terribly inconsistent (leading to other quality and diagnostic problems).

Every time we hit a snag getting product out the door, I'm reminded of that young girl sitting at that bench wishing she had some method to get those hundreds of caps on and off automatically.

And, one final piece of my philosophy is the evil of worshiping money.  Most of this failed economy around us today is the direct result of greed and short-sighted ignorance.  The world is what it is, because of what we each make of it. Put the human in the equation, as your brother or sister, and your good work will endure far beyond your life.

Today, I am the 66 year old father of an 11 year old (future Michigan man I hope) and married to a woman 19 years my junior. I read 4-6 hours a day, am building an Intel Core2 Quad Q9550 Yorkfield 2.83GHz workstation to run solid modeling CAD, restoring an old house, and making sure everyone uses the recycle bins. Life is good. Go Blue.

Neal Bryan Vance
BSE (EE) Class of '71
neal.vance@labcappers.com
Saginaw, Michigan