The shoe must go on

Posted by
On March 13, 2009

Darla Ellis begins her workday like many of us do – standing in front of an open closet, pondering what to wear. She takes the time to find the pair of shoes that will coordinate perfectly with her outfit. But her decision never involves pumps or flats. No, for Ellis the perfect shoes are Nikes, every time.

In Ellis’ work, wearing Nikes is a matter of practicality. “We’re a pretty casual bunch here. There are days I might have to crawl behind a big piece of machinery and that’s not really something you want to do in a business suit.”

But wearing Nikes is also part of her job. Ellis, ChE’06, is a manufacturing engineer for Nike’s plant in St. Charles, Mo. She works in extrusion, where sheets of plastic are developed for use in various types of Nike athletic shoes.

“Our plastic sheeting is used in shoes with the Nike Air logo,” Ellis explains. “It’s used in the air bags that give cushion to the heel.”

Today, Ellis is wearing Shox Experience+ in black on black with gray and red accents. They’re not her favorite pair (she’s got a pair of personally designed ones that she loves right now), but she likes them for work because they’re easy on the feet when she stands all day, which Ellis frequently does.

Most of Ellis’ work involves process engineering. Right now she’s working on a plan to improve the areas she’s responsible for at the St. Charles plant. “It’s a doozy of a project all the way around,” she says.

She has also dabbled in materials research, project management, product development and equipment upgrades. “It’s a variety of work all the time,” she says.

As a kid, Ellis was a whiz at math and science, but she wanted to go into business. When she got to college, however, she quickly realized it didn’t hold her interest and she switched to engineering.

“I read a magazine article about a little boy who suffered a medical accident and was fully revived thanks to his father having inside knowledge about an experimental drug,” Ellis says. “The article made mention of his father being a chemical engineer and I thought, I can do that.”

Despite her non-mechanical background, her favorite project so far has been the upgrade of the plant’s winder – probably because of the challenge it posed.

“I’m a chemical engineer, mind you, so equipment upgrades aren’t exactly my forte.”

“I’m a chemical engineer, mind you, so equipment upgrades aren’t exactly my forte.”

In the St. Charles plant, workers melt resin and extrude it in sheets anywhere from 12 ½ inches to 80 inches wide. The sheets are then cooled and sent through the winder, which wraps the product around a rotating shaft to whatever diameter the customer requires.

The system had parts in it from the 1970s, Ellis says. “We updated the system with all-magnetic particle clutches. They’re great because even tension is always a problem with winding and these clutches adjust tension without any jerking. It was more involved than I expected, but I learned a lot.”

Wearing Nikes may just be part of her job, but Ellis has been a fan of the shoes for years.

When she began a summer internship with Nike during her senior year at Missouri S&T, Ellis already owned a pair of well-loved Nikes. She returned to campus at the end of the summer with eight pairs.

“It’s been a running joke with my friends,” Ellis says of her shoe count, which has increased to 25 pairs. “I love their products.”

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On March 13, 2009. Posted in Features, Spring 2009

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