Behind the Innovation | Greg Voelker
Behind the Innovation is a series where we talk to someone at Whelen about their career and life. In this edition, Austin Cobb, Senior Training Specialist talks to Greg Voelker, Mechanical Engineer, Fire Chief, and motorcycle enthusiast.
Austin: Hi Greg! How are you doing?
Greg: I’m doing great Austin, how are you?
I’m just fine, let’s jump into the questions. When did you start working at Whelen and what was your very first job here?
I started in 1999 as a manufacturing engineer to make fixtures and design processes for the building of our lightbars.
And you are in mechanical now?
Yes, I’m a mechanical design engineer now.
How did you make the jump from manufacturing to mechanical engineering?
Oh, I moved all over the place. I came in as manufacturing and then I moved to Aviation for a short time, and then I started working for Geoff Marsh in mechanical design.
What inspired you to begin a career in engineering?
I grew up on a farm and I was always interested in the way all the machinery worked. Before my time at Whelen, I worked for another engineering company and started college while I was there. I graduated when I was 35 years old. It was a long road, but it was always mechanical things that interested me.
How is being an engineer at Whelen different than being an engineer elsewhere?
One of the biggest differences is at Whelen, you get to see everything from the very beginning inception of an idea to the final product. You see the whole thing –everything it touches, and everything that you must put into it to get it perfect. At other engineering companies, the engineers sometimes get pigeonholed into one thing and that’s all they know. They never really see the final product; they only see their final product.
You are also a Fire Chief. What came first – Whelen, or the fire department?
My dad was in the fire service and when I was about 12, I started going with him to fires. I officially joined the department when I was 18. I didn’t start working at Whelen until much later.
Do you consider your background as a first responder an asset at your day job?
I think I understand our customers’ problems better because I am also a first responder. I know what I need out in the field and I can see the progress that the lighting industry has made, led by Whelen. I think I understand what really makes a difference out there and I can share that with other engineers so we can make the best and most useful products.
We are so lucky to have so many first responders working at Whelen. How do you think they help develop lifesaving products?
All of us have a passion and drive to develop and produce products that really make a difference. We also serve as a great sounding board for ideas because we live it on the outside.
Tell me about your love of motorcycles.
I’ve always been very interested in motorcycles. When I was little, I would ride dirt bikes in the woods around my dad’s place and it’s always been a passion of mine. I was fortunate and when I started in the mechanical design group, I was assigned a project for the Buell Motorcycle Company. They were developing a new bike that we developed products for from 2006-2009.
Harley Davidson eventually closed the Buell division, but I continued to nurture our relationship with them, and I’ve been developing lights for their bikes ever since. I have an easy way of being able to try out the products on my bike at home to make sure things fit. Every year the bikes change a little bit, so we always have new products to develop.
It’s great that your two passions – fire service and motorcycles – have been major parts of your career at Whelen. Did you expect that when you started?
I didn’t expect that at all. When I first started in production it was more about using my expertise to make our processes easier. Once I got into design, I was able to start working on things I’m passionate about – motorcycles and fire engines.
It’s great to go to work every day and be passionate about what you’re doing for the world.
In everyone’s eyes, it’s better to have someone who is really passionate about what they are doing so we can develop the best products for the right reasons. If you’re not into motorcycles, it’s not a passion, it’s just a job. If you’re not a first responder, you don’t understand how it feels to put your life on the line in that way. In order to continuously develop new products and make the industry better, you need drive, purpose, and passion.
What advice would you have for someone looking to get into mechanical engineering?
My daughter just graduated from college as an engineer and I’m so proud of her. It’s an honor to have her follow in my footsteps. My wife is also an engineer, so she has really taken up the family profession.
My advice is to find something that you can do to get experience. Colleges don’t always train you to look at something in the eyes of a manufacturer. Continue to follow your passions and you will see how you can make things different. Then, try to find a job developing ideas and products you love. It won’t really feel like a job then.
What has been your favorite project to work on?
The Buell motorcycle because at that time I was riding Buells. I still have one. I got to meet Erik Buell and go out to his factory and really see the passion he has for putting together bikes. He really is a mentor to me. Being there and being able to go with Whelen was very self-rewarding. When we released it to market it was very well done, well-orchestrated, and very self-fulfilling.
There are so many innovative products being made at Whelen. Where do you see the future of Whelen?
We always prioritize our understanding of the market and where we think it’s headed. We need to understand new technology today so we can continue to solve our customers’ problems tomorrow.
I have CenCom Core™ in my Fire Chief vehicle and I feel like it will become critical for all first responders in the future. DVI™ and V2V sync are going to help motorists and first responders stay safe on accident sites. The way we are developing technology to help people at night is going to have a huge impact.
Why do you do what you do?
I think it’s my responsibility to look out for first responders like myself. All of the people who put their lives on the line to protect others deserve the best, and every day when I come to work I need to do the right things to make the right products to help protect them.
Thank you, Greg, this was great.
Thanks so much.
Behind the Innovation is a series of interviews where the people at Whelen find out more about the people they work with – the designers, sales executives, production workers, marketing team members, dog people, writers, inventors, and everyone in between. With 1,200 people working from two different locations, it’s a good way for us to get to know each other.
Behind the Innovation, Part One: Austin Cobb