[Podcast] The Women of American Manufacturing — No More Incremental Improvements: Driving Change in Manufacturing Technology with Annika Cederblad and Alex Troesch
Alex Troesch: Continuing on the thought of removing biases. I think there's also this misnomer that manufacturing in the U.S. is maybe over, or it's done, or that's all in China, or that's somewhere else. Or even as it moves to China, it’s just going to go to a cheaper labor pool, and that it's just not coming back to the U.S., and I just think that's not true.
If we're going to continue to drive the speed at which we get things to people, you'd have to think that that will also impact where we make those things, how they're made, and when they're made. If we're producing more just in time, closer to the people who want it, we can get it faster. So I think there's a lot of big shifts happening that make this industry really exciting to be in, especially right now.
Lindsey Athanasiou: This is the Women of American Manufacturing podcast, where we highlight female leaders and influencers who are revolutionizing the industry. In every episode, we explore each guest’s journey into manufacturing; their vision for the future of American manufacturing; and the innovation, creativity, and communication that they bring to the industry.
Thanks for being here, let's get started. Hello everyone and welcome to the Women of American Manufacturing podcast. I'm your host Lindsay Athanasiou, and I have not one but two guests with me today that I'm thrilled to have on the show. So, without further ado, Alex and Aanuka please introduce yourselves.
Annika Cederblad: Thanks, Lindsey. My name is Annika. I am a program manager over here at Fulcrum. I've been with Fulcrum for three years and I'm based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Alex: I'm Alex Troesch. I am the product director for Fulcrum. I've been with the company for about four years and currently based out of Colorado.
Lindsey: Awesome. For our listeners who might not already know about Fulcrum, Alex, maybe you could describe a little bit more about what Fulcrum does in the manufacturing space.
Alex: Yes, so Fulcrum really is a full end-to-end, cloud-based ERP system. And our vision really is that software, especially for business and for the manufacturing space should be really modern, really intuitive, and really technology-forward.
There's really big challenges and complicated problems that are being solved within manufacturing, and a lot of companies, especially smaller companies are still using really outdated or unintuitive softwares to try and solve those problems. So we're here to kind of change that and make the software that you're using in your business world and your business life as intuitive and easy to use as your day-to-day software that you may use on your phone.
I think at a much larger perspective, we also see manufacturing as a really connected ecosystem and our eventual goal is to really tap into that network and connect manufacturers together.
Lindsey: Amazing. Thank you so much for the description and anyone who's listening knows what Paperless [Parts] does, I'm sure you see why I have the Fulcrum ladies on my call today — or on the podcast today — because we share a lot of similarities in terms of our vision for the manufacturing industry and a lot of the problems we're trying to solve, oftentimes together.
Thank you so much, both of you, for being here; I'm psyched about the conversation we're going to have, and I want to just start digging right in. So before we get to sort of what your lives are like today and the problems you're tackling, I'd love to back it up a little bit and hear both of your stories about how you entered into manufacturing technology, because you both came from other worlds. So Annika, can you tell us what your path into manufacturing was?
Annika: Yeah, absolutely. My path into manufacturing was really by chance. I started out at Target, so within the retail industry, and was there for about seven years. I really enjoyed it, really learned a lot, but by the end was actively looking for a change, and it was at that time that I met Fulcrum CEO Sunny Han, and he just talked to me about manufacturing. He talked to me about the opportunities that he saw; he shared his vision for the future of manufacturing.
Just thinking back to the day, what really stood out to me was when Sunny was talking about the environmental impact of manufacturing and how it's structured today. So, the industry today is not what I would call super strategically connected, that’s something, as Alex mentioned, we at Fulcrum are working on — and I know you guys at paperless are working on as well.
One of the results that we see of the industry not being super connected today is an ocean full of barges, just giant ships full of partially manufactured goods, going back and forth across the ocean, which — as you can imagine — is not very good for the environment. So one fun fact I'll call it that Sunny shared with me that day was that reducing the international shipping that comes from outsourcing by just 20% would actually be equivalent to removing, I think it was 1 million cars from the road every year. So that was really what hooked me.
Lindsey: That's insane, wow, crazy cool stat. I wonder how many times he's used that to make his point.
Annika: I don't think I was the only one.
Lindsey: Cool. So Alex, will you tell us a little bit about how you entered into the manufacturing technology sector?
Alex: I entered into it, somewhat similar to Annika, really sort of luck. There wasn't a real reason as to how I entered into this area, it just kind of happened. I was working at Target also at the time; I kind of knew I wanted to make a transition and didn't exactly know what was next. I was thinking about getting my MBA, going into consulting, and I ended up at Fulcrum at the time doing small business consulting. While I was with Fulcrum in those early days, we realized that there was a ton of value that we could add into the manufacturing space. It just became really obvious to us as a company that that was the direction and the path that we were going to start taking. So, yeah, I kind of lucked into it. It just sort of happened.
But for me, the why — why I've stayed in this space after joining it — I think it's just really exciting and interesting.
Manufacturing is something I honestly hadn't thought that much about, or that deeply about, before entering into this space. And it really does impact everyone's everyday life in really huge ways. The advancements that are made within manufacturing are the advancements that really, truly advance our civilization: It means you don't have to wait for chips; you don't have to run out of PlayStations; we can make cooler VR games; we can make things that are cheaper and better, and more satellites and more rovers that go to Mars. All of these different things are from the advancements within manufacturing. And so I think that's really cool. It's an exciting space to be in, and that's what has kept me here.
Lindsey: Cool. I love that you were both at Target. You didn't overlap in your time at corporate, right?
Alex: No, we all we've figured out. We almost did, strangely enough. Target is huge; Target corporate is usually like 10,000 employees. I joined the team that Annika left like a month or so after she had left that team. But no, we never met or overlapped.
Lindsey: That's so funny. And Annika, I know you had shared with me that the transition from Target into manufacturing — when you were first considering it, once Sunny had convinced you to maybe give it a shot — you were really intimidated and you just thought like, “I have no background in this. I have no experience in this. How is this transition going to go?” What was that actually like for you? How did it go?
Annika: Yeah, it was surprisingly smooth. There's certainly a ton I had to learn coming to manufacturing, and a ton that I still need to learn about manufacturing, but there were a lot of core concepts that we actually learned within the retail industry that translated: Supply and demand; I was ordering things from vendors; I had lead times; I had a P&L; all of these concepts were part of my background in retail and they all translated pretty well.
Lindsey: So it wasn't as challenging as you might've thought it would be?
Annika: Agreed. A lot of the knowledge was already there. And I think — it's like Alex mentioned earlier — manufacturing, for those of us that aren't in the industry, may not be something that we think about on a daily basis, but it is something that touches all of us on a daily basis. So in hindsight, it's not that surprising, actually, that a lot of those concepts were already there.
Lindsey: Totally. And I think that's a huge takeaway for this episode and for anyone who's listening that might be considering joining this industry new or leaving the industry and going somewhere else, you often know more than you think you do, right? And sometimes it's a uniquely woman thing to have this sort of like Imposter Syndrome or this self-doubt that, “Oh my God, I don't know anything about that. How am I ever going to be successful in that role?” And it reminds me of something that Alex, you mentioned to me when we first spoke, which was at Target, you were on a team that was 80 or 90% female, and then leaving that to come into a male-dominated industry, both in tech and in manufacturing. What was that experience like for you?
Alex: It was interesting. It was definitely a shift like you said, Lindsey. At Target, most of my teams — and there's a ton of female leadership at Target — the teams I was specifically working in were majority female. And so I think one of the biggest shifts actually coming into a primarily male-dominated industry was the change in communication style.
This is a massive generalization, but in manufacturing in general it seems that people are really busy. They have a lot of stuff to do. It's a very direct communication style that I just wasn't really used to from my previous experience. And so I think it definitely was a shift for me and understanding how to communicate effectively and change my communication style to match so that I was getting my point across and communicating in the appropriate way with those groups and in that different environment.
Lindsey: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. That's kind of an exciting shift or an exciting challenge, maybe, to view it as. So on this note of coming from a very different industry, Annika, what do you think the benefit of having that prior experience has been for you?
Annika: I would say one of the big benefits of coming into manufacturing with no specific manufacturing background is that I have less bias about how things should be done. And I think that's really important for, for anyone, but really at a company like Fulcrum where our mission is to innovate and have an impactful change, not just for our customers, but for the industry as a whole. We're not going to achieve that level of innovation and that level of change by just making tweaks to the solutions that exist already.
I think when you come into anything with an idea of how things are currently done, it's really easy to fall into that trap of just thinking about “what are the current solutions and how can I make those better?” One example that we'll often use here is just thinking about the transportation industry. When we went from a horse and buggy to cars, I'm pretty sure those inventors were not thinking about “How do I make a more efficient buggy?” They were thinking about, “I want to get from point A to point B more efficiently,” so the root problem — “how do I do that?” — and as a result, we got cars and we got planes. So, you know, I think going back to that outside perspective, not having those ideas about how things work right now, just being able to focus on the issue can be a real upside.
Lindsey: Absolutely. That's a great analogy. It's like these incremental improvements, don't get us very far, you know? Amazon wasn't an incremental improvement to how you buy books and it led to what it is today. So, Alex, what would you say, like your outside perspective, what was a challenge that you faced, you know, coming from that world and then coming into manufacturing with a totally different set of skills or mindset, et cetera?
Alex: Yeah, that's a good question. I think one of the challenges that I've faced going into this industry from previous experience was thinking that I had to have all of this base knowledge to be successful here. And so going to Annika’s point, what we've really focused on as a company and believe in, even in our hiring practices, is you don't actually need a ton of base knowledge. You can start to build that knowledge, but you need to be able to build frameworks for how to think of problems from the ground up and think of solutions for those problems.
And so I think that was actually one of the things that hindered me probably the most when I came over from my retail background and then into this industry was that I had such a lack of confidence.
And again, going back to like these communication styles and everything, I think my lack of confidence was definitely showing through when I'm in a room of really direct, really confident males, challenging me on my ideas. I felt like I needed all this huge knowledge about the industry to even be able to validate that my ideas were correct or valid or had any merit. And that just really wasn't actually the case. I've realized that you can build that knowledge and you do need a lot of that knowledge, but it's really about understanding frameworks for understanding the root of problems and building solutions around that.
Lindsey: And I love that you guys are really living that at Fulcrum and, like Annika said, it's not like, “how can we make these small changes to what exists today?” it's “how can we invent brand new solutions that no one's thought about?” And so what you're kind of alluding to is ushering the manufacturing industry into Industry 4.0, It's kind of a term that you hear everywhere now and it's like, what does it actually mean? I'm curious, from women at such a forward-thinking technology provider in the space, what is the vision for industry 4.0 for each of you?
Annika: I'll go first. My vision for 4.0 is really what I heard from Sunny that first day when we sat down and talked about manufacturing. We don't just want to be the best ERP out there. I mean, yes, that is a goal, but we have this whole other long-term vision of building up a very connected network of manufacturers and suppliers, and having a huge impact on how the industry functions overall. That will have a ton of impacts, but one of them goes back to the very thing that brought me into manufacturing: thinking about the environmental benefits of having those more strategic connections and not sending almost everything and back and forth across the ocean before it hits that end consumer.
Lindsey: So, does that vision make you feel
Annika: Excited seems like a basic word, but it's the only one that I'm thinking right now.
Lindsey: Yeah. I could definitely see... big visions like that can feel intimidating. You know, sometimes it's like, depending on the day, right? If you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, you're like, “Oh my God, this is a mountain to move!” like, “all I can see is like these obstacles in my way,” but if excited is the first word that comes to mind, then obviously you guys are onto something because you're figuring out the solution, which is so cool.
So Alex, what's your vision for industry 4.0?
Alex: I think it has a lot of similarities with what Annika already mentioned. Really for us, being able to make even small incremental changes to the manufacturing industry as a whole, to make things more efficient or more connected, can hugely impact the way that we produce things to make them better, faster, higher quality. So I think that is kind of the overall vision.
Our biggest challenge, honestly, in getting there is really communicating and evangelizing that vision to everyone else. Sometimes I think whenever we talk about our vision and this really connected supply chain where you know exactly when everything is going to show up from your vendors, there's no guessing anymore. You have an idea of “I'm over capacity in my shop, but I actually know that there's someone nearby who would just take some of this work.” Like, we understand the actual capacity of the entire supply chain, where everything is at any given moment and, and where it's going.
And I think that evangelizing that and, and kind of explaining that as a vision for the future and the potential of where we're trying to go and getting people to say, “wow, yeah, you're right That is the future, that is highly automated, everything's in real time, I understand where everything is, it's connected, it just works.” That evangelism of that is it's kind of harder than you may think, especially in an industry where people have been told so many times that that's happening, it's already happening. It's already coming, and then it hasn't come to fruition.
Lindsey: Totally, yeah. I think manufacturers have been, historically in this country, kind of an underserved industry with technology and there's a level of cynicism and skepticism that just had to develop because, like you said, there were these false promises made over decades and decades.
I forget which one of you said it earlier, but you talked about how Fulcrum is trying to become the type of software that we all use in our daily lives, which is applying it to, you know, the shop floor basically. And it's funny when you realize like, Oh my gosh, we have Alexa in our home, I'm buying all my groceries through the Whole Foods delivery in five minutes, but then a shop owner will walk into their shop and just have such lower expectations for the software that's serving them and they're, you know, a $20 million business. It's sad and it's totally frustrating.
So it's exciting, and I'm excited, just kind of hearing you guys talk about it. I think you bring such amazing energy to your work and in talking about your work. So just in terms of the bigger picture, what has it been like for you Annika to be a woman in manufacturing?
Annika: To be a woman in manufacturing… Well, so I'll start with Fulcrum itself. Fulcrum itself is about 40% female, so I honestly don't think very often about the fact that I am a female in the industry, which maybe I'm a little bit lucky in that way. Looking at our customer base, we do have some very strong female leadership across our customers. But if I do the math there, I would definitely say that women are the minority. So on that note, when I'm meeting with some of my customers, even if it's me and a room full of men who are experts in their branch of manufacturing, my experience is that I've always felt respected for my knowledge about the technology side of things. So overall, I would say that being a woman in manufacturing has been a really positive experience.
Lindsey: That's awesome. Again, another important thing I think that more people hear, because what we're unintentionally doing on this podcast is kind of dispelling some of the assumptions or misperceptions that people have of manufacturing, of tech in manufacturing, that everyone kind of assumes —or most people assume — that it's such a male-dominated industry still. And that even though it's changing, it might still feel that way. So that's awesome to hear. Alex, do you have a different perspective on that?
Alex: I think somewhat similar. So, I know within the manufacturing industry, women are underrepresented. I think they make up 29% or so of the manufacturing workforce, but we're actually about 47% of the labor pool and even higher percentage — over half — of the labor pool of higher education degrees. So there's definitely an under-representation there. I don't actually think that it's an industry that's systemically sexist or anything like that; I don't feel in my conversations that that is coming across. I think that it starts even younger than that, of getting young girls to look at math and science and technology as a place that they feel like they can contribute and want to be a part of.
Like, for me, I just didn't really look there to be completely honest, and I don't know why. I don't know if it was just that I didn't see my mom or my older cousins or people like that, women actually in that industry. I'm not sure why I didn't look there. My dad actually, when I was younger, encouraged me specifically to go into engineering. I took an engineering class in college or high school and I was the only girl in the entire class. So maybe it was a subconscious thing of just “maybe I don't fit here.” But I do think it starts with those younger generations, and getting younger girls seeing that math and science and technology are areas where they can and should be looking towards and looking to contribute in, and starting them in that younger age will end up having more and more females in manufacturing.
Lindsey: Absolutely, yeah, start them young. We interviewed someone else for the podcast a few weeks ago who started a program where she's going into junior high — like middle schools — at this point to try to build that awareness at a young age. And I was like, “when are you going to the elementary schools? When are you going to the kindergartens?” Because honestly it does become a subconscious thing. If you're playing with Legos in class and then all the other girls are playing with dolls, you start to make these connections that you don't even realize later on why you have this bias or you're drawn towards certain things, but it's absolutely the socialization aspect of it.
Well, I'm glad you ended up in this industry because it seems to suit you very well. I guess — without giving away any secret sauce, because you're both a part of a team that's really pushing manufacturing technology forward — Annika, is there a certain project or thing you're working on right now that you're super excited about and you feel is really innovative.
Annika: Some of the things we're working on with scheduling are what excites me the most. I think there's an endless amount of possibilities there and how to make that more efficient. And I think we're just tapping the surface of that. So, I would say that's what makes me most excited.
Lindsey: Cool. I can't wait to see that in action.
Alex: Yeah, and I'll echo something that from Annika’s point of scheduling and just thinking about something that we talked about earlier of evangelizing and getting people to even understand, you know, what's really possible. And to your point that I should expect this level of intuitiveness and power in my business that I expect from my iPhone. I was just in a demo a couple of days ago, demoing to a prospective customer and explaining our scheduling system and our algorithms and the capabilities that we have, and the production manager on the other side, honestly, just did not believe that the things I was telling him were possible that these were things that we could actually do.
And it's not because he's unimaginative or unintelligent in any way, it's just because he's heard these promises before, and has been sold on and marketed to in the past on these exact same things, and it's never really worked for them. And so that I think, well, somewhat demoralizing, it was actually really exciting to say, “no, we actually can make some pretty massive changes.” The point is there are changes that people currently don't even think are possible.
Lindsey: I love that; those moments are the best. If you're in sales or any customer-facing role to have that jaw-dropping moment. And you realize, “okay, if I can really deliver this, this is gonna completely change their world, their whole perspective on their work, on the sector, really.” They're not expecting that this actually will work, and then you're like, “I know it does.” That's such a cool position to be in. I hope they sign, I hope they already signed because you guys deserve that business. That's so cool.
So we have a little bit of time. You both have really cool perspectives and experiences and a lot to offer, I think, to young women or really any woman who might be considering going into manufacturing, whether it be in technology or operating a machine. What might be a piece of advice that you'd offer someone who isn't yet in the industry and considering making the switch?
Annika: I think if you're a female and you're already considering making the switch, that's half the battle right there. Like we talked about, it just doesn't occur to many women as a field right now. And I hope that changes, but for anyone considering it right now, that's awesome. And then I would just go back to what I said before, or touch on a few of those things: I came in with no manufacturing background, and I actually found that to be somewhat beneficial, and in terms of being a female in this field, I don't feel like it's ever held me back. You know, in that room full of men, I've always felt respected for my knowledge. It's maybe not how I would have thought things would play out before I started. So maybe the biggest piece of advice is just erase any biases you might have about the field right now.
Lindsey: I love it. Rock on. I think that'll be the title of this episode. Alex, do you have a piece of advice you'd offer?
Alex: Yeah, I think really similar to Annika’s advice about kind of erasing those biases, I think there's really cool things being done here. And the work is really cerebral, and methodical, and thoughtful, and important, and creative. And I think you shouldn't want to be excluded from that and excluded from solving these problems that really impact everyone.
Continuing on the thought of removing biases. I think there's also this misnomer that manufacturing in the U.S. is maybe over, or it's done, or that's all in China, or that's somewhere else. Or even as it moves to China, it’s just going to go to a cheaper labor pool, and that it's just not coming back to the U.S., and I just think that's not true.
A lot of things that have happened in the way that people buy things and ship things. And you hear in the news about Amazon, and Shopify, and e-commerce, and distribution, but who makes all of those things? So if we're going to continue to drive the speed at which we get things to people, you'd have to think that that will also impact where we make those things, and how they're made, and when they're made. We're producing more just in time, closer to the people who want it so we can get it faster. So I think there's a lot of big shifts happening that make this industry really exciting to be in, especially right now.
Lindsey: Yeah, that's such a good point. That was a huge learning for me when I joined the industry, because you truly don't realize just how everything in your physical world came from manufacturing. You really don't and sure, a lot of it was made overseas, but a heck of a lot of it was made here too. This is one of those misperceptions I would like to dispel personally is that US manufacturing is not dead. It actually experienced a huge boom again in the last few years, and now there's this huge focus on just making it even stronger and — selfish plug — it's companies like ours, who are really allowing that to happen even faster.
Can you tell me about a time when you, at Fulcrum, were presented with a problem to solve and what your approach was to solving it, or, backup question, Tell me about a time when you did face a challenge in your work, how did you approach it? How did you solve it or how are you still trying to solve it?
Annika: I'm having trouble thinking of a specific example, but somehow the general idea that's coming to mind is we'll often get very specific customer requests that are, “I want this exact feature, I want to click here and I want that to change this, and then I want to see it here.” And I think in the past, when we were a little bit earlier as a company, mostly in our consulting days, we would say,” okay, you've got the experience, so we'll build just that.” We would do that, and it worked out terribly many times. I think a lot of the times what people thought they wanted wasn't actually that incremental change that was going to move the business forward. So that is really something that's pushed us to go back to: Don't listen to the current solutions, don't try to just tweak those, just focus on those root problems.
Lindsey: That's super interesting. And I think that that probably is very relatable to whoever's listening in any industry. I used to be in the nonprofit fundraising space and same problem: People would ask for these little tweaks and you devote a day of development or engineer time to it and be so excited to present the customer with that solution. And then like three weeks later, you're like, “how's it going?” And they’re like, “Oh, we haven't used it.” or you “Oh actually we need this other thing that wasn't quite it.”
And I think that's such an interesting problem that especially nascent tech companies grapple with, you need to really prove to customers that you are our customer first and you're solving their problems for them, but drawing this line of “Is this a one-off? Is this actually going to impact your business line?” Because that's our goal here: to help you grow, become more efficient, save money, be able to invest in equipment, et cetera. Or is this something that actually we need to back up and figure out “why are you even asking this is this? Is there a bigger issue we can solve for all of our customers by you making this sort of like smaller requests?” Yeah. I love that. That's a good story.
Alex, did you have something that came to mind as well?
Alex: Yeah, not just one specific problem. I think one of the biggest problems and challenges we experienced is related to what Annika was saying as well, which is actually there's a lot of really complicated problems to solve. We're going really deep on solutions involving engineering, and launch teams, and marketing, and design obviously, and in thinking of the best solution.
We have no shortage of ideas, but we do have limited resources. And so one of the biggest problems we face is: We go really deep on empathizing, fully understanding this problem, solving it, thinking of ways to solve it, even mocking it up, putting our heart and energy into it, and then really loving this solution... And then at the end of the day, we have a hundred awesome solutions, pick three. And so it's a challenge of prioritization, really, and understanding what is best for our customer base, what's the best thing right now for us as a company, and making really tough decisions on what we're actually gonna do when.
Lindsey: Totally. Yeah, I feel that. Cool. So we've moved into our rapid fire question portion of the podcast, which may or may not be my favorite. But this is where we ask each of you quick questions, I give you just a second to answer and just give me the first thing that pops into your mind. I'm not going to ask you why you chose that, we'll move on to the next one. So I got four for each of you. Are you ready?
Annika: I think so.
Lindsey: Awesome. All right, Alex, let's start with you. Who is one famous person you wish would work in manufacturing with you?
Alex: Kristen wig, for sure.
Lindsey: What's your favorite blog or podcast?
Alex: The Black Box of Product Management.
Lindsey: What's the last movie you saw
Alex: Irresistible? Uh, the political satire with the Steve Carell
Lindsey: And what's your favorite food?
Alex: Ooh. Uh, probably pasta.
Lindsey: Okay. All right. Last but not least: What is the number one reason why more women should work in manufacturing?
Alex: Yeah, I think women have a ton to offer in this field and we need more women to, you know, drive the diversity of thought and diversity of innovation. And I would personally like to also work with more women in this field
Lindsey: Annika on to you. Do you have a pet?
Annika: I have to have a dog named Mila and a cat named Nala.
Lindsey: What is the last vacation you took?
Annika: Northern Minnesota, cabin on the lake.
Lindsey: Do you have a work from home hack or a secret?
Annika: Well, because I have a cat, a message to all cat people there: When you leave your computer, you should close it so your cat doesn't send really awkward gibberish messages to your coworkers and customers.
Lindsey: Finally, what is the number one reason you believe more women should work in manufacturing?
Annika: I mean, I think women have a lot to offer any field, but like we talked about earlier, this field in particular just probably didn't occur to many of us when we were planning our future. So you don't need a background here to be successful in it. And we need diversity in this industry to make it its best, so women should join manufacturing,
Lindsey: Preach. I love it. You both did beautifully. Thank you. So that's a wrap for today, folks. I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did. Thank you so much to our guests: Annika and Alex for being here, I had a blast chatting with you and I can't wait to meet you in person once the world reopens.
Alex: Thanks, Lindsay.
Annika: Yeah. Thank you, Lindsay. This was great.
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