111. Hero – Chung-Chee Tai, VP of Engineering at BluePrint Automation Transcript


Chris: 00:00 

When do you find that you’re the happiest? What work are you doing that gives you the most fulfillment if you will? 

Chung-Chee: 00:05 

When I go from, I don’t know what I’m looking at to, aha! 

Chris: 00:11 

Welcome to EECO Asks Why a podcast that dives into industrial manufacturing topics and spotlights the heroes to keep America running. I’m your host, Chris Grainger.

And on this podcast, we do not cover the latest features of benefits on products that come to market. Instead, we focus on advice and insight from the top minds of industry because people and ideas will be how America remains number one in manufacturing in the world. Welcome to EECO Asks Why today we have a hero episode and I’m very excited to have with us Chung-Chee Tai, who was the Vice President of Engineering at BluePrint Automation. So welcome Chung-Chee.

Chung-Chee: 00:51 

Good morning. 

Chris: 00:52 

Good morning, sir. How are you today? 

Chung-Chee: 00:54 

Hey, you said this one is I can do anything I want, so I have a Wawa cup here Wawa listen. I need a lifetime supply every day. 

Chris: 01:03 

Okay. hopefully we have a Wawa listener and we can get you hooked up with that free coffee. You’re a ton of fun, Chung-Chee and we love these stories and to get us started, we always ask our heroes to share with us a little bit about their journey. 

Chung-Chee: 01:20 

My journey is interesting. I was just thinking about that this morning. was thinking about when I started, before I became an engineer I grew up in Asia.

I don’t know if that’s probably obvious, but I grew up in Asia. Um, one thing about in Asia I explained this to my friends, so my brother has a car. He needs an oil change. And basically he calls a guy and the guy bring a truck over, pick up his car, put on a truck ticket. Take it there for oil change and bring it back and put a car back inside the house.

We never lifted a finger on most things. And that’s how I grew up. So when I became a mechanical engineer it was quite a shock. I mean, 

I know the book, I know how to do calculations, things like that, but never really hands-on. So fortunately I got my first job is in the manufacturing environment. I I learned how machines are designed. And I learned wiring. I learned programming, all that. From beginning to the end, it in the beginning, it was quite a shock just because I really did not have to do much before. And I guess I embrace it. That’s how I learn all the different things. So I went from the um, being a designer, a machine designer for a manufacturer.

So it was all in-house used machines, equipment to doing packaging machines as an OEM, Original Equipment Manufacturers to supply it to all these different customers and to what I do now. 

Chris: 02:53 

Very cool. So now, where did you go to school at? 

Chung-Chee: 02:57 

I went to Iowa State. 

Chris: 02:58 

Iowa State. Okay. 

Chung-Chee: 03:00 

Yes. I landed in Iowa from a tropical country in the beginning of January when it’s snows a lot. 

Chris: 03:10 

So that was a bit of a culture shock on couple of fronts, right? 

Chung-Chee: 03:14 

Oh yes. The cold shock was incredible. I remember my second month in, I, mentioned earlier. I really don’t get up early in the morning. I’m not a morning person. I hate in the morning. So in, when I was in college that all four years I don’t do much in the library except to take a nap.

I have this perfect spot where I can take a nap, it’s by the window. The sun comes in. It’s keeping my warm and then I overslept and I realized, “Okay, I gotta run across to my English class,” which is across the campus on the other side. And I run down the library trying to to the English department.

And then I step out, first thing I did, I just went down and that’s when I learned something called a freezing rain. Yeah, there is such thing I see. 

Chris: 04:01 

Learn the hard way, right? 

Chung-Chee: 04:03 

Oh yes. So that’s yeah. That’s how I do and learn how to deal with winter. 

Chris: 04:08 

Wow. Wow. so when you came to Iowa State, that was your first time to the country?

Chung-Chee: 04:12 

Oh yes, definitely. 

Chris: 04:13 

Okay. 

Chung-Chee: 04:14 

You remember? I mentioned that ignorance is bliss. I have many episodes of that. 

Chris: 04:21 

What was the most fun thing about Iowa State? 

Chung-Chee: 04:23 

The most fun thing was everything is flat. So when there’s a lot of ice you can only slide so far. 

Chris: 04:29 

Right. Did you go to any sports, sporting events or anything like that while you were there?

Chung-Chee: 04:36

I’m not a big sports fan. I tell the truth. I will watch the Super Bowl and that’ll be the only one time I’ll watch any sports event. In fact, I don’t even have TV in my house now. So I tell you on Sunday night, I’m going to scramble to figure out where I can watch the Super Bowl. 

I got to figure out which channel is this. And I have not had TV for a while now. So I’ve done through this practice several times. There was another time, maybe about two or three years ago. I was watching the internet. And the internet was not a great that day because it must be a lot of people on streaming and it paused and then I keep refreshing, then start back up and say, I was watching him and say, “Hey, deja vu. I remember that part. I just saw it not too long ago.” So instead of playing insulate it, wasn’t. Playing back to it. I wasn’t no longer watching live that kind of stuff. 

Chris: 05:28 

What’s driving the reason for no TVs is you just want to get it out of out of your life for now.

Chung-Chee: 05:34 

No, I’m too cheap to pay for cable. 

Chris: 05:37 

I’m with you there. It’s unreal. It’s the expense involved with that. Yeah. I appreciate your honesty. 

Chung-Chee: 05:43 

I tell you what I’m cheap and lazy.

Chris: 05:47 

And you’re a lot of fun. I will tell you that. I’m sure our listeners are enjoying this. So how about your you’re a VP of Engineering at an OEM? What do you see it as some challenges in the future and what’s coming down in your pipeline that you think you only need to address in the future?

Chung-Chee: 06:05 

Um, to understand what’s coming my way to understand the workforce that I have in how to prepare us to for the next 10 years.  I see my role really is not. I mean, obviously I, we sought the solution, um, but I don’t see the value unless I can make my imprint for the next 10, 15 years. So can I steer the company or my group in the correct direction? My guys enjoying working here. Are my guys making a impact to what is yet to come. If I can achieve that I think I’ve done what I need to do here. 

Chris: 06:45 

No doubt and for the listeners out there Chung-Chee who may be considering a career in industry or OEM specifically, any advice that you would offer up? 

Chung-Chee: 06:56 

So when I interviewed someone whether it’s for an engineering role or different role in the company, I always look at a person whether. If someone comes in and then they want to draw a box around themselves and say, “Hey, this is all I’m going to do. And this is all I’m willing to do.” Um, that also means that’s all you will be able to do in the future. You will not be able to achieve anything else.  Embrace what might be coming it may not be something that you would like right now, but it will bring different things that come up in the future. 

Something that you may not know, may not understand your willingness to explore, to figure out how to get that done. It’s going to bring a lot to you. I mean, just coming from my own background so I was mechanically trained, and I look at controls as something that is interesting. I call it the instant gratification. just because, controls guy, you do something, you can see the results right away, for a mechanical yeah. For mechanical guy, you design something, it takes three months before something show up in front of you and they say, “Oh, that doesn’t work.”

Chris: 08:03 

Exactly. Yeah. 

Chung-Chee: 08:05 

I liked the control aspect of it. And then basically I started exploring, figuring out, all right, what does it take? What training do I get? And then start talking to my boss say, “Hey, can I try this smaller project in the beginning?” And until I get the entire line, bring me a different aspect of what the mechanical design mean. Exactly. There are so many options. I don’t know. Don’t let what you know right now be the obstacles that lock you in that box. 

Chris: 08:32 

Exactly. Yeah. Some of the best engineers, we’ve had a chance to interview have said just that. And I remember one, one engineer, he had an electrical, but he got put in pneumatics mechanical even into a little bit civil. And he was like, that stretched me. And now, I have, I’m not an expert in those areas, but I know enough to be able to bring value and to understand the process to help and I think that’s just great advice, 

Cause if you’re set on, “Hey, all I want to do is program PLCs,” that’s probably all you will ever do. is program PLCs. It won’t give you a chance to really, to grow and expand your career to potentially lead. Like you do a group of engineers across multiple disciplines.

Chung-Chee: 09:16 

Yeah. So my latest thing right now is in SQL. Oh, SQL. Yeah. And yeah. Do I know SQL? Not really, but you know, take some classes just exploring, I just find the power of information. So when you have all the pieces of information in front of you, that makes you make a quick and right decision.

And that’s crucial. So I interact with EECO, not just from the engineerig perspective and I actually I’m over, I had the responsibility of buying as well at BluePrint. So I interact with EECO and with rich, from the both aspects the engineering is specified and then on the buying side we negotiate pricing, things like that, too.

It’s not just buying. it’s easy to go to EECO just say, “Hey, give me a better pricing,” but you can only go so far. EECO is not a nonprofit organization. Correct? You guys need to make money somehow. 

Chris: 10:13 

I will definitely affirm that. And I hope Mr. Holmes and Mr. Knight and the executives hear that as well.

Chung-Chee: 10:19 

Okay. uh, this, I mean, it doesn’t do both company a favor. All I can do, or, if every time Rich said, “Hey, bring down price,” it doesn’t work that way. So the question is like, all right, what makes sense? what are the things that we can do? one of the things I buy regularly from you guys. What are the things I can see that I’ll be buying for the next 10 months In the end work with EECO, and as far as stocking level, things like that, or am I buying this variation? There’s a mixed sense. And do I need to go down to a different like, we look at our Servo sizing, am I using the right Servo sizing or I’m buying all these 10 different sizes of Servo.

Does it make sense to bring it down to five instead? And I buy more quantity of things like that. Information in addition to engineering, when engineering is one side information is on the other side, it’s just what I’m into right now. 

Chris: 11:12 

I hear you. It sounds like you’re into a lot of fun stuff though. 

Chung-Chee: 11:15 

I like stuff, I don’t know.

Chris: 11:17 

Yeah. Now you said you had a lot of engineers that worked for you and that you’ve been able to help grow. How about mentors or do you have a chance to mentor to them? Have you had mentors that have helped you in your career that you like to give some recognition to. 

Chung-Chee: 11:32

I do have mentors. my, my old bosses, I’ve been lucky very lucky so far. I have had my very first boss in my first job. I mentioned before, I’d really never lifted a finger when I was growing up into, like deep in, in the manufacturing environment. I have a boss that was there. He’s the boss that is in the trench and that really set an example for me. There’s a boss that said, “Hey, you work Friday, Saturday, Sunday you then come back and report to me on Monday.” He was not like that. He was there with me all along and, I have questions, he answers, I need help, he provides the help. Yeah. That was my first boss. And that left a huge impression on me, how I should behave for me and with my guys.

Chris: 12:19 

So have you guys had, do you have opportunities to, to mentor people one-on-one as they’re growing and their engineering career, do you find those conversations come naturally? Do you guys schedule that time? Just curious on how you guys or you personally go about that development? 

Chung-Chee: 12:35 

Yeah. So it’s an interesting topic. Like people that have interacted with BluePrint before that mentor, the mentorship is not never been an emphasis with Andre, who is now our CEO, he puts a lot of emphasis on it and he does it as an example himself. He will do that with multiple people, not just his direct report.

You would do that to some guy on the floor was putting machines together. He will take time and do that with those individuals as well. You will reboot with him. They would talk about things, talk about issues to help our life. That’s an example that he’s leading in, like me personally, I do a mentorship with some individuals there’s on a regular scheduled basis.

So some every week, some, every two weeks I’ll be doing one at 10:30 after this call. So it’s a great thing because it, it shines a different lights to the company culture used to be just work. Now there’s that personal touch? Yeah. To help a person to grow to achieve more than what they were only allowed to do. Which is a great thing. 

Chris: 13:39 

But it’s also, I’m picking up there’s a lot of intentionality on your behalf. You see this as important. You’re making time on your calendar. You’re investing your time and others you’re pouring into them. So hats off to you for recognizing the importance of it.

Chung-Chee: 13:52 

Yeah. I basically tell my guys I don’t do anything. All the work is achieved by those guys. I rely on them really it’s. They all do. They’re the real people putting the effort in doing a real work.

Absolutely. Chris: 14:04 

Hats off and it sounds like you’re a great leader. And you know what, I’m curious in your role, when do you find that you’re the happiest? What work are you doing that gives you the most fulfillment? If you will. 

Chung-Chee: 14:15 

I go from, I don’t know, what I’m looking at to, aha! 

Chris: 14:20 

Ah, that moment. Okay. Very cool. How about highlights? Anything that you can look back across your career and you say, you know what I was a part of that project, or I was a part of that solution and it was really cool? Anything stand out? 

Chung-Chee: 14:34 

I mean, my role right now is more on the managing site. I don’t really do it design work, but I can tell you that I can go to grocery stores to Staples, to Sam’s and then I can look at some of the products. I can look at those. And then I say, “Huh, that was my design.” 

I can tell you right now, if you go to grocery store, like Kroger. There’s a square container that makes a butter or margarine. You open the lid up. There’s a seal, a white seal on it. There has got two little holes and one big hole imprint on it. And I know exactly why it’s there. 

Chris: 15:13 

Okay. Why is it there?  

Chung-Chee: 15:15 

It was there because the margarine would de-gas over time, the issue that we had before was that as it began, you put them in storage, So it de-gassed so much that  actually pop the seal open.

Chris: 15:28

Oh wow. 

Chung-Chee: 15:30

When we heat seal the seal, the plastic seal on the cup, we actually have this device that actually push it down. So that is concave and so that when it de-gassed, it’ll just become flat. And we do that when the device is hot. That’s why it leaves that imprint in there.

Chris: 15:50 

Okay. Yeah. There you go. So that’s what I mean. 

Chung-Chee: 15:54 

Yeah. That’s a satisfaction for a lot of our engineers here, because at BluePrint we do patching equipment, right? For food. So they go up to the grocery store to can tell them their kids, their husband, their wives, and say, “Hey, that was my machine.”

Chris: 16:07 

There you go. There you go. It sounds like it’s a lot of fulfillment and pride and what they’re seeing, that is awesome. Thank you for sharing that, you know, that, that was wonderful. And we love to have these hero conversations, Chung-Chee, and we talk a little bit outside of work, which we’ve done a little bit that already. Let’s get off the the VP of Engineering and let’s just talk Chung-Chee for a bit, for a few minutes, if that’s okay. 

Chung-Chee: 16:29 

Yeah. There’s not much outside of Chung-Chee.

Chris: 16:32 

Oh, you’re sure it is. How about, let’s start with your family. Anything with your family you’d like to share? 

Chung-Chee: 16:37 

I got three kids. My, my wife who works at home, so well, not works at home. She’s basically watched all over us. I got three kids, 17, 14, and 11. Actually was last year. Yeah. So I got two in the high school now, one in middle school. Okay. And they have not seen at schools since COVID. 

Chris: 16:56 

Wow. Wow. Yeah. Are they boys, girls? What’s your mix there? 

Chung-Chee: 17:02 

Yeah. My oldest one is a boy and then two girls.

Chris: 17:04

 One boy and two girls. I bet they keep you busy. 

Chung-Chee: 17:08 

Yeah. Yeah, they do, but they all at an age now where they just, they’re friends, they talk to themselves without. Actually, it’s more likely on age where they says, “Hey parents give me some space.”

Chris: 17:19 

Yeah. Yeah. I was wondering, are you at that point where dad’s not cool anymore? 

Chung-Chee: 17:21

Yeah, it does. definitely not cool.

Chris: 17:24

We think you’re cool. So we’ll, hopefully they’ll listen to this cause I’m sure they’re that generation, they love podcasts. Listen to that type of stuff so maybe they’ll listen to your story. 

Chung-Chee: 17:34 

Yeah. maybe you do appreciate them when they’re like 25. 

Chris: 17:37 

There you go. There you go. This is evergreen. So it’ll be out there. So whenever they’re ready to listen, it’ll be here for them. Yeah. How about stuff that you enjoy, podcasts, YouTube channels, any books, just things that you find value that you’d like to share?

Chung-Chee: 17:53 

So for entertainment I listen to ‘Wait Wait…. Don’t Tell Me’ that’s on NPR. I listen to ‘Planet Money’, which is, interesting from time to time like the one I listened to yesterday was talking about Robinhood and GameStop. They clarify some of the things that I thought was crazy, but they, I think what’s pretty clear after they explain all of that.

We were talking about exercising. I run I just started doing that since COVID just because they shut down the gym. And I can’t go to the gym anymore. It’s just running at night. So if you guys live in Midlothian, you see a guy running at night with two lights on one on his head and one on his hip that’s me. Don’t hit me.

Chris: 18:35 

Got it. Got it. So you are a runner. Anything you, any other hobbies you enjoy doing besides running? 

Chung-Chee: 18:41 

I play piano. I play guitar. Mostly piano. I’ve been doing that since I was five. Now it’s usually pretty busy, so I don’t do it as much anymore, but I do enjoy playing different music, new music. Just explore like my thing right now in the last year or two is really the Rothman and Brahms.

Chris: 19:01 

Okay. Okay. 

Chung-Chee: 19:02 

Yeah, just the harmony they can do is amazing. 

Chris: 19:05 

So do you have a piano at your home?

Chung-Chee: 19:07

Two 

Chris: 19:09

Oh. Two of them? Okay. 

Chung-Chee: 19:11 

Two pianos, three, three or four guitars. One drum set. I learned drums that it really did not have a time to practice. And I told my wife, I want to learn cello. She said, “You’re too old for that.”

Chris: 19:25 

Don’t listen to her Chung-Chee. Listen. You can do it. 

Chung-Chee: 19:28 

Besides there was no space in the house for a cello. 

Chris: 19:30 

Right. We have a, a small, a baby grand. My wife plays piano. she’s played her whole life. 

Chung-Chee: 19:37 

So, what kind?

Chris: 19:39 

Ah, man, you had to ask me, she’s going to kick my butt. I forget the name of it, but I will send you a picture, but it’s she’s teaching our daughters now. So they’re eight and ten. So they’ve been playing for a few years, but I love just to hear her sit and play the classics and things like, it sounds like you’re doing that as well. 

Chung-Chee: 19:55 

Yeah, So I’ve sent all my kids to get lessons. I do not know how to teach. I am not a good music teacher.

Yeah. Don’t have the patients?

Yeah. Yeah. Just don’t have the time also. So my wife said, “Imagine the money that you could have saved by teaching your own kids, right?” Yeah. Oh yeah. 

Chris: 20:14 

It has its challenges. Sometimes the piano lessons don’t go as smooth as we would like. We had to, this is just, this is not the night for piano. We’ll try tomorrow night, but it’s fun to hear them play and to watch them progress and things like that. 

Chung-Chee: 20:29 

Yeah. I like accompany my kids, to their piano lessons and then I, the patients in that teacher, it’s just incredible. Yeah. I heard my kids play and she said, “Oh, it’s so good so good,” in my head. I was like, “no, that cannot be good.”

Chris: 20:45 

I hear you. So Chung-Chee, we’ve been doing a new thing on EECO Asks Why, a lightening round. It’s just a bunch of random questions. They can be short answers. They can be long answers, however you choose to go, but we’ll just get to our listeners to know a little bit more about you. You willing to play the game?

Chung-Chee: 21:01 

Sure you might regret it with the answers. 

Chris: 21:02 

That’s okay. There’s no regrets here. It’s all good. It’s just, this is fun stuff. So we’ll start with the softball. So what will be your favorite food?

Chung-Chee: 21:09 

Depends. That changes right now. My favorite food is  ZZQ Prime Rib. 

Chris: 21:15 

Okay. Okay. Can’t go wrong with that my friend. How about your favorite adult beverage? 

Chung-Chee: 21:20 

When I was 14, I was given a Guinness stout by my friends, dad. 

Okay. 

And growing up in Asia there’s no age limit, and then that’s when I realized I’m allergic to alcohol. Okay. I’ve tried it several more times in my adult life. I’m allergic to all of them as long as they have alcohol. 

Chris: 21:41 

Really. Okay.

Chung-Chee: 21:42 

So it sucks to be me. However, I’m the best travel buddy. 

Chris: 21:47 

You’re always a driver. 

Chung-Chee: 21:49 

Yeah. So when you paid a bill, my name is on it, but I don’t drink a drop and I’ll drive you home.

Chris: 21:55 

Yeah. There you go. Okay. 

Chung-Chee: 21:57 

Yes. 

Chris: 21:58 

How about your your favorite movie?

Chung-Chee: 22:04 

My favorite movie, I don’t know. Kill Bill one, not two. 

Chris: 22:08 

Okay. That was a good one. I’m interested in with this. What’s your answer earlier? What is your favorite type of music

Chung-Chee: 22:18 

Type of music? I’m definitely classical. Let me tell a little story. So I had piano lessons when I was five and then up to when I was 16. So basically where I grew up there’s tests in music theory and then in the playing part. So I completed all my tests I was done. So I move on to take classical guitar lesson.

So I have a teacher and his name is Eric and Eric loves Eric Clapton. 

Chris: 22:43 

Okay. 

Chung-Chee: 22:44 

So he was telling him about Eric Clapton and then my face was just a blank. He’d say you don’t know who’s Eric Clapton was, I was like no. How about John Lennon I said, “who?” So my growing up I’ve always listened to classical music, but since then since I’m older now, I grow my tastes a little bit. so I’m like listening to a jazz. 

Chris: 23:03 

Okay. Okay. Yeah. Where’s a destination that you haven’t been yet that you’d like to go to?

Chung-Chee: 23:11 

So there are 63 national parks. I’ve been to 13. 

Chris: 23:15

Okay. 

Chung-Chee: 23:16 

I got 50 more to go. 

All right. So it’s on your list.Chris: 23:19 It’s on your list. Out of those 13, we’ll just make this part, the lightning round. What was your favorite one that you visited so far? 

Chung-Chee: 23:28 

I did Zions Angels Landing. I don’t know if you heard of that one. That’s the one you walk like you think you’re there. And then there’s a sign that says you could go continue if they keep going 10 people has died since I don’t know when. So I did that in between Christmas and New Year. I have chain on my boots and then, I was pulling basically to get all the way up and you gotta pull yourself up on it with a chain and come back down that way. That was very interesting.

Chris: 23:57 

Wow. So it sounds like you’re a little bit.

Chung-Chee: 23:58 

No, I’m not adventurous. It’s more like the ignorance is bliss part I keep repeating. 

Chris: 24:04 

All right. How about cats or dogs? 

Chung-Chee: 24:08 

Definitely dogs. 

Chris: 24:09 

Definitely dogs. All right. Well, you are, you’re a wonderful participant in the lightening round, so thank you for putting up with me.

Chung-Chee: 24:17 

Yeah. Thank you for putting up with me. 

Chris: 24:19

Well, this has been a lot of fun Chung-Chee just to get to know you and and we always wrap up the EECO Asks Why with the why were just talking about passion and what drives people. So if somebody would want to know what your, why is Chung-Chee how would you answer that?

Chung-Chee: 24:35 

I want to know the unknown. 

Chris: 24:38 

All right. That is awesome. So just keep looking for that always. Yeah, and that’s awesome, well Chung-Chee this has been a blast I will make sure that we tag Wawa so hopefully they’ll see that and get you that free coffee,but thank you so much for being on EECO Asks Why, for sharing your stories. It’s been just a wonderful time to get to know you. 

Chung-Chee: 25:01 

Thank you for the effort. 

Chris: 25:02 

Absolutely. Thank you, sir. 

Chung-Chee: 25:04 

All right.