Learning to Move Forward

Kailey Smith talks about how the MSR program changed her mindset and taught her the skills needed to excel in her role as an applications engineer at Tutor Intelligence.

When Kailey Smith began searching for a master's program in robotics, she wanted to find one that allowed her to spend more time with robots and less time in the library.

When she discovered Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program, she felt it was what she sought.

Kailey Smith“Coming from a mechanical engineering position, I was much more interested in getting my hands dirty with different technical projects instead of a big research thesis,” Smith said.

MSR's focus on developing a project portfolio allowed her to do that. During her time in MSR, Smith (MSR '21) did everything from programming a Baxter robot to recycle bottles and cans to designing, constructing, and controlling a small-wheeled robot from scratch.

That variety prepared her for her current work as an applications engineer at Tutor Intelligence, a company whose mission is to make robots more accessible to a greater range of manufacturing and packaging companies.

“Historically, robot arms excel at repetitive tasks on a single product, but most manufacturers don’t have process lines dedicated solely to one product,” Smith said. “This problem is exactly what we’re tackling at Tutor Intelligence, bringing affordable and flexible, collaborative robots to these facilities.”

In her role, Smith finds herself bridging the gap between hardware and software and between her company's product and its customers. No two days are the same as she routinely alternates between creating a CAD model, testing directly on a robot, rapid prototyping, and chasing down software bugs in the company's tech stack.

"I own the lifecycle of many projects, from ideation through design, sourcing, production and software integration," she said. "Many of these projects are motivated by our customers' needs, and it’s my job to understand what results they’re looking for and communicate those desired behaviors efficiently to our engineers.

"I’m never bored because every day presents a new challenge, and I wouldn’t want it any other way."

Smith credits MSR with helping her find that enthusiasm while tapping into her own potential. Thinking back over her time in the program, she said it was the little accomplishments that ultimately meant the most to her. Prior to the start of her first quarter, Smith and her classmates participated in a hackathon where they worked to get a robot to pick up a pen. Looking back on it now, she acknowledges that while the project only took a few days to complete, it had a lasting impact.

"Completing that gave me confidence that I could excel in the program and made me eager to keep pushing my limits," she said.

Smith gained plenty of technical knowledge while in MSR, but ultimately she felt it was changes to her mindset that helped her get where she is today.

“I came into the MSR program as a little bit of a perfectionist," she said. "I learned pretty quickly that taking my time and trying to write a program ‘right’ the first time was not going to get me very far. I gained so much more knowledge taking risks and trying new strategies compared to when I played it safe and only stuck to what I knew."

"Failures are stressful and uncomfortable, but they’re also excellent learning opportunities.”

She carried that newfound knowledge into her professional work at Tutor Intelligence, where she no longer tries to find the perfect solution right away.

“I know the first, second, or even 10th idea I try will probably not wind up being a long-term resolution,” she said. “What’s important is to learn from each iteration, try as many ideas as I can, and keep moving forward.”

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