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Cheryl Gomes emphasizes safety throughout the manufacturing process

Advanced Textiles, Features, Management, Perspective | April 1, 2012 | By:

Cheryl Gomes tracks quality and reliability from process through life-saving product.

“If you make a mistake when you’re developing safety and protective products, people could be injured or die,” says Cheryl Gomes, lead principal materials engineer for QinetiQ North America’s Survivability Group in Waltham, Mass. “So it becomes even more important to pay close attention to the product’s quality and reliability.”

Gomes began working as a consultant for the QinetiQ North America’s Survivability Group in 2002 and became a full-time employee in 2004. The Survivability Group, which provides a variety of life-saving end products and solutions, is one of three divisions that offer defense and security services; the other two are Unmanned Systems, and Maritime and Transportation.

For Gomes, being qualified to work on the development of highly technical safety and protective fabric products grew from three simple roots—participation in the Girl Scouts that fostered a passion for helping people, a love for sewing and an interest in science. “I took home economics classes in college,” Gomes says. “And when I took my first textiles class, I thought it was great. I ended up majoring in clothing textiles and design, which allowed me to use my science knowledge and apply it to something tangible. And putting that together with my passion for helping people brought me into the safety and protective fabrics field.”

Wired for work

One of Gomes’s first assignments at QinetiQ North America was to work on a team developing electronic textiles, which led to the creation of QPAN™ (Personal Area Network), a wearable electronic textile that transports audio, video, power and data. “Basically it’s a narrow fabric that has conductive wires woven or knitted through it that can be used to embed different technologies in uniforms or other garments,” Gomes says.

The initial QPAN development was shared with the Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center with Offray Specialty Narrow Fabrics, Chester Township, N.J., through SBIR (Small Business Innovative Research) program funding. The QinitiQ team was made up of mechanical engineers, an electrical engineer and Gomes—the textile engineer. While the other team members focused on how the data would be transmitted electronically and how the system could withstand multiple washings and abrasion, Gomes evaluated the fibrous materials and how they would perform, addressing questions such as: Is the fabric going to fade? And if the electronics are embedded in camouflage, will they change the spectral reflectance?

In pursuit of process

The process-oriented Gomes also tracked each group member’s progress as they worked to meet the contract—an additional skill that led to her current responsibilities, which include managing contract research and development projects, providing technical support in selecting materials, proposal management, and ensuring that processes and products are compliant. “It was a key turning point for me a few years ago when one of my bosses asked me if I wanted to stay in the technical side of things or move to program management and support,” Gomes says. “I love the technical aspect, but working in program support I get the best of both worlds: I still learn about the technology and can also help organize projects in a way that paves their future paths.”

Organizing projects begins with identifying customer needs, Gomes says. With the clients, she explores the questions: What are the requirements? And what are the priorities? Often she recommends conducting a trade study to evaluate the materials or garment against the requirements, and then test the product in the field. “When you prioritize the requirements you can find the value,” she says. “If something is very important to the customer, you assign it a higher value. Then you ask if a material meets the requirement or exceeds it. It may seem simplistic, but it’s a methodology that works.”

Gomes coordinates the group assigned to any given project and facilitates planning how they should approach development. She creates schedules for each team member and compliance matrices to ensure the proposal meets the customer’s requirements. She then monitors the project’s process, making sure it meets technical expectations and budget, and communicates project status to her bosses by creating a template for project engineers to populate. “I touch every aspect of a project,” Gomes says. “From the proposal stage through contract discussion through development and close-out.”

A simple plan

The process is streamlined because QinetiQ North America is ISO-certified, which includes a plan for periodic product reviews throughout the process. In the summer of 2011, as a part of an ISO and AS90100 revision, Gomes was a part of the team that revamped the corporate design and development processes for the Technology Solutions Group of QinetiQ North America, of which the Survivability Group is a member. The team trains the engineers at different facilities to make sure everyone involved is approaching the project in the same way.

“If a procedure is too difficult to follow, people aren’t going to do it,” Gomes says. “I’ve tried to develop a system in which people are following it without knowing it.” Gomes broke down the paper trail by dividing and subdividing categories, and team members populate the appropriate folders as each project requirement is met. “It’s a lot more streamlined and user-friendly,” she says. “And it can be more easily audited.”

Still, no matter how logical and simplified a tracking process is, it can be difficult to inspire employees to stay on top of producing reports. Gomes relies on a simple reward system as a motivator—food. “Sometimes when people get me what I need on time I give them candy,” she says. “There’s a lot of stress for people and you can’t just beat on them with ‘I need. I need. I need.’ So I give them goodies. People around here joke about it, but it works. Behind all the planning, organizing, motivating and tracking, Gomes keeps one thing in mind. “All the items we’re working on are designed to save lives,” she says. “I try to keep that focus.”

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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