Product Designer Finds Engineers’ Playground in Wisconsin
MIT Technology Review
As the youngest of four girls, Rosalie Phillips ’21 looked up to her sisters, and everywhere they went, she went. As early as fifth grade, she recalls, she was joining her oldest sister at robotics meetings in the machine shop of a local college, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
“They would hand me a drill and show me where holes needed to go, give me a screwdriver to help assemble pieces, and show me how the different components they were building worked together,” says Phillips, who got a lot of Rosie the Riveter comments as she continued to pursue robotics in high school. “I definitely cite that as the beginning of my lifelong love of building things and, in turn, the tools and machines that make building things possible.”
That passion brought Phillips to MIT, where she discovered product design, and from there to a job as a designer for the nation’s largest supplier of cordless power tools, Milwaukee Tool.
Her time at the Wisconsin-based company started through a monthlong internship during her junior-year Independent Activities Period (IAP) as part of MIT’s Micro-Internship Program, where she was able to gain valuable experience working directly with and for MIT alumni.
“I worked in the advanced engineering group, and I worked on developing an accessory for an electrical trade tool that was focused on, as our products tend to be, improving the efficiency of a common task repeated throughout the day for electricians,” explains Phillips, who earned her undergraduate degree in Course 2-A—a customizable track in mechanical engineering that allowed her to take a deep dive into product design.
The best part of the January 2020 micro-internship, she says, is that she came away with a prototype in hand: “The process of creating the prototype started with putting myself in the users’ shoes, experiencing what they are currently doing on the jobsite and what the pain points of that process are.”
I just love the feeling I get when I hold something I designed or made in my hands for the first time. It’s a big part of the reason I became an engineer.
Once Phillips understood what success would look like, she began brainstorming about how to get there. “After I had my best concept selected, I began to iterate and problem-solve,” she says. “Milwaukee has great onsite rapid prototyping resources, and I was able to design a concept and have a high-fidelity 3D print in hand a day or two later to test everything from access to ergonomics to fit. It was an amazing hands-on experience surrounded by all the resources to prototype you could ask for—definitely an engineer’s playground.”
The success of the IAP internship motivated Phillips to sign on for a full internship at Milwaukee Tool in the summer of 2020, when she got to work on a prototype for a carpentry power tool. That was closely followed by a full-time job offer. She started in September 2021. One thing that drew her to the company was the structure of product design cycle, and the fact that each person owned a project rather than contributing to multiple larger projects.
“I just love the feeling I get when I hold something I designed or made in my hands for the first time. It’s a big part of the reason I became an engineer,” says Phillips. “I feel amazed I was able to bring something from my brain into the world, excited to test it out, curious if it will break, and already ready to make the next one.”
The Alumni Advantage
The notion of an IAP internship is not new. The MIT Alumni Association started the MIT Student/Alumni Externship Program in 1997 as a way for alumni to host student interns during the January term. It was renamed the Micro-Internship Program upon being revamped after transitioning to MIT Career Advising and Professional Development (CAPD) in 2020. The program still encourages MIT alumni to host undergraduate and graduate students at their companies, although students now also have the opportunity to apply for positions not hosted by alumni.
For her micro-internship, Phillips reported directly to Troy Thorson ’98 and collaborated with Beth Cholst ’16. She says being able to work with not just one but two fellow Course 2 alums made her experience even more valuable.
“Troy would spend extra time with me,” says Phillips. She recalls that Thorson, who is a director of advanced engineering, would devote a lunch break every week to taking apart some sort of handheld power tool to demonstrate how it worked, talking through what hiccups had come up in the design process. “It made me more excited to work there, because I think tools are interesting—the guts of tools are very intriguing to me,” she says.
Cholst—who is a manager of advanced engineering for outdoor power equipment such as leaf blowers and string trimmers—started at Milwaukee Tool in 2016 and has enjoyed the opportunity to work with interns so much that she is now in charge of recruiting at MIT. “I remember when Rosie first started,” she recalls. “We gave her the first project during IAP, and we weren’t even sure it would be possible to finish it in January. She did such a great job. We knew we needed this person back—she had so much passion and curiosity.”
Making An Impact with Tools
Today, Phillips works on power tool product development in the company’s carpentry and nailers group—and two initial prototypes she developed have been picked up for further development, with one approaching launch this year. Although she has yet to achieve that “ultimate satisfaction” of seeing one of her tools on the shelf at a hardware store, she is close, she says. (The power tool she worked on during her summer internship is also almost ready to go to market.)
In the meantime, she’s excited to be working at such a well-known company. “If I’m wearing a Milwaukee Tool shirt or jacket, people stop me and tell me how they only buy Milwaukee, or the crazy tasks they’ve put their tools through,” she says. “Experiences like that really keep at the front of your mind the people who you are making these tools for, and the real impact it makes on their day and livelihood to make a tool with the best performance possible that will last for years.”
Interested in hosting an MIT student for a micro-internship? Email Tavi Sookhoo at firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out the form at bit.ly/MITMicroIntern. CAPD can also help alums interested in seeking MIT talent for summer internships and full-time job opportunities. Learn more at bit.ly/HireMIT.
Photos: Ken Richardson.
This article also appears in the January/February 2023 issue of MIT News magazine, published by MIT Technology Review.