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Tom and Tim Smart
July 8, 2024

Spotlight on Badger Alumni: Mechanical Engineers Tom & Tim Smart

Written By: Caitlin Scott



The Smart Brothers, Tom BSME’1976 and Tim BSME’1980, both credit their father E. Allen Smart for inspiring their paths into Mechanical Engineering. He completed both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering at UW-Madison and spent his 40+ year career in engineering. He also met their mother at UW-Madison where both her parents and her grandparents were alumni. That makes Tom and Tim fourth generation Badgers!

Tell us about your time on campus.

Tom Smart with Mike Leckrone at WAA Detroit Club Founders Day Event
Tom Smart with Mike Leckrone at a WAA Detroit Club Founders Day Event

Tom: I started at UW-Madison in September 1972, and graduated with a BSME degree in December 1976. I spent my freshman year in Sellery Hall, then joined the Delta Upsilon fraternity, and spent the remainder of my time living in their house at 644 N. Frances St. I joined the UW Marching Band and played trombone in it for four years during the time shortly after Mike Leckrone came to UW. It was a great time to be in the band as Mike developed many of the traditions that live on today! I was also in the UW Jazz Ensemble my freshman year, but gave that up when the engineering workload became more intense.

Tim: If my response sounds a bit like Tom’s, it’s because as his little brother I always looked up to him!  My time on campus was similar; with both Tom and our Dad holding Mechanical Engineering Degrees from the University of Wisconsin, I very much wanted to go the same route. In my case I started in the Lakefront Dorms, and then transitioned to the Theta Chi Fraternity House at 210 Langdon Street. Like Tom, I also joined the UW Marching Band and played trumpet in it for four years under Mike Leckrone. For sure both Marching Band and Fraternity Life didn’t leave too much spare time for Engineering!

What can you share with us about your career paths?

Tom Smart and Ford CEO William Clay Ford
Tom Smart giving Ford CEO William Clay Ford some advice

Tom: Upon graduating from UW, I was hired as a mechanical engineer at Ford Motor Company. I spent 30 years at Ford in Product Development, advancing to manager level positions in both Engineering and Product Planning and Strategy. When Ford cut 30% of its workforce in 2007 due to the recession, I took a pension buyout and then joined the consulting firm, Automotive Insight with some other Ford alumni. I worked another 12-13 years as the Technology and Strategy Director for Automotive Insight, handling a variety of contracts with Deloitte, Ford, TARDEC on military vehicles, Electric Vehicle companies, and some Asian automakers.

Tim: My career path actually started prior to Graduation, with my working both Summer and Winter breaks (around 4 months a year) at the Point Beach Nuclear Plant in Nuclear Operations. This was before taking a semester or two as an Intern was common. It was a great experience, and I learned to value my ME Degree. Upon graduating from UW, I was hired as a mechanical engineer at 3M Corporation in the Twin Cities. After 5 years in the Twin Cities, they moved my position to Austin, TX, where I remain to this day. Initially, I worked on Manufacturing Equipment, which led to Engineering Program Manager for entire multi-million Production Lines, and then on to Engineering Program Manager for (3) completely new Manufacturing Plants. My final position was the Global Industry 4.0 Program Manager for Hardware (Advanced Automation, Robotics, and Logistics). All those experiences took me around the world and to this day some of my very closest friends are in Asia, Russia, Europe, Latin America, and Canada. After retiring just shy of 42 years, I recently took a personal trip to Singapore just to meet up with my 3M buddies!

What are some of the experiences throughout your career that have been most interesting to you?

Smart bros in suits
Young grads rocking three-piece suits in 1981

Tom: One of the highlights of my Ford career was leading the Vehicle, Chassis and Body Engineering teams on Ford’s first hybrid-electric vehicle, the 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid. The Toyota Prius was the only HEV on the market at the time and Ford wanted to be the first to market a Hybrid SUV. We overcame many challenges in developing the all-new technology required, and the final vehicle was a market success, leading to other Ford Hybrid entries. Another significant project I was involved in at Ford was developing a high performance, mid-engine sports car for Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) in the late 1980s. The styling and package engineering were being done in Italy and the construction was to be in France, so I made many trips to Europe to qualify suppliers and finalize the vehicle layout. Unfortunately, that project did not make it to production after a shift in exchange rates hurt profits. During my time at Automotive Insight, I led studies on vehicle electrification for the US Army and identified technologies in the automotive sector that could apply to military vehicles without new inventions being needed.

Tim: For sure I look most fondly upon all of the international assignments and I’d strongly encourage Engineering students to look for those types of experiences. On a related note, being fluent in one of the international languages of business (other than English) is a huge plus (German, Chinese and Japanese are perhaps the most recognized).

Please discuss how UW shaped you into the person and engineer you are today.

Smart Brothers with cars
Tim and Tom with their cars in 1981, both with personalized license plates “ON WIS”

Tom: I was a car nut from an early age, and restored a couple of cars and built a dune buggy while in high school. Therefore, I was excited to learn about the work on vehicle fuel efficiency being done by Professors Norman Beachley and Andrew Frank at UW-Madison. They were leading efforts on vehicle computer simulation and Professor Beachley had even built a vehicle powered by a flywheel for greater efficiency. He encouraged me to join the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Student Chapter at UW where I gained valuable skills in vehicle engineering that I was able to use in my career at Ford. My UW professors also taught me the value of continuous learning, since technology continues to advance and engineers need to keep their skills current during their careers.

Tim: There’s no question that I was strongly influenced by my Mechanical Engineering Degree: It was clear while I was in the program that ME likely held the broadest opportunities to practice Engineering across a wide range of technologies. That was absolutely the case in my 3M Career; I seamlessly transitioned from Manufacturing Equipment to entire Manufacturing Process Lines to Manufacturing Plant Construction and then on to become a Global Program Manager and SME in Industry 4.0.

What was your motivation for starting the Smart Brothers Design Awards?

Tom Smart SCORE pictures
Images from 1974 Student Competitions on Relevant Engineering (SCORE) article

Tom: In 1974, I worked with two other UW engineering students to develop an invention for the national SCORE (Student Competitions on Relevant Engineering) program. The theme that year was fire-fighting technology, and we designed and developed a back-pack device on a harness that would allow the user to escape from a high-rise building fire. We received a second place award in our category at the national competition. We also won a prize at the 1975 UW Engineering Expo for our design. This experience taught me the value of students becoming involved in real design projects while in school. When the Schoof’s Prize for Creativity at UW ended, Tim and I saw the opportunity to enter that space with some cash awards to help motivate students in the ME Senior Design Showcase. We have both done well in our careers and are pleased to be able to give something back to UW in this manner. Read the article: Students SCORE Against Fire

Tim: In yet another common experience, both Tom and I added MBA’s to our BSME degrees (paid for by our respective employers). Maybe it was just the national psyche when I was in Biz School, but a huge amount of emphasis was placed on starting a company, and I really became fascinated by that ecosystem. That in turn led to my interest in the Smart Brothers Design Awards.

Anything we haven’t asked that you’d like to add?

Tom Smart receiving WAA Award 1998
Tom Smart receiving WAA Outstanding Alumni Club Award as President in 1998

Tom: I have always enjoyed giving back to UW. During my time at Ford, I became Ford’s lead Engineering recruiter at UW-Madison. Ford believed in sending engineering managers to campus rather than HR personnel to identify new engineers to hire. I also coordinated a five-year gift from the Ford Fund to the UW Engineering School to replace prior ad-hoc giving. I was honored to serve on the UW Engineering Dean’s Industrial Advisory Board, initially under Dean Bollinger and later under Dean Peercy. I have also served on the Board of the WAA Detroit Alumni Chapter (Motor City Badgers) for over 30 years in various capacities, and was awarded the WAA Outstanding Alumni Club award during my time as President.

Tim: I’ll close with one more word of free advice to the current ME Students in the program: Whereas both Tom and I added MBA’s to our BSME’s (that was the hot ticket in the late 70’s and early 80’s), the world has changed. It may still be a good choice for those wishing to launch a company, but there is another option: With Corporations increasingly shifting production to plants overseas, the need to protect IP has never been greater. If I were a Mechanical Engineering grad today, I would look pretty hard at adding a JD Degree, such that I could move into IP/Patent Law. Not that many ME’s take that route, so it has become a highly lucrative career path.

Tom and Tim recently lent their support to establishing the Smart Brothers Design Awards in the ME Department. Students now have the chance for their projects to win Best Overall, Best Prototype, and Most Significant Impact each semester.

Featured image: A huddle of Badgers! Tim, their mother Nancy, Tom’s wife Valerie, Tom, and Tom and Valerie’s sons Jonathan and Kevin