Toy Story

Alumni Profile: Wendy Sudsinsunthorn

By Caperton Gillett

 

Wendy Sudsinsunthorn
Wendy Sudsinsunthorn and RALF                           (click on image for larger version)

Every day, Wendy Sudsinsunthorn goes to work under the watchful eye of a three-story-tall robot named RALF. “It’s pretty cool,” she says.

There’s a lot about Sudsinsunthorn’s job that’s pretty cool. She’s a project manager in the research and development division of Birmingham-based Summit Toys. The 2007 UAB School of Engineering alumna spends her days working with toy designers, turning brilliant ideas into the kinds of playthings that will entertain and educate kids.

Sudsinsunthorn, a native of Pell City, has had a lifelong fascination with toys. “As a small child, I loved playing with Legos. I loved building things. I loved taking things apart and putting them back together,” she says. She never expected, however, to find a job making actual toys. She merely hoped for a career “that allowed me to solve problems and be able to create things,” she says.


A World of Possibilities

Those interests led Sudsinsunthorn to UAB, where she received an engineering scholarship. She began her college career with an undeclared major, but a work-study position in the lab of Bharat Soni, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, showed her how interesting—and fun—that field can be. “I chose mechanical engineering because it is such a diverse major,” Sudsinsunthorn says. “It allows you to do all sorts of things within the engineering discipline, and it opened up a whole world of industries that I could explore.”

Sudsinsunthorn did plenty of exploring in her years at UAB. She took a flight—and did a zero-gravity experiment—aboard NASA’s “vomit comet”; constructed an off-road race car that had to navigate treacherous trails and float in water; and helped run an “egg-drop” competition for local elementary and middle-school students. She found that outreach to be particularly inspiring. “We allowed them to create their own contraption that would protect an egg when we threw it off a three-story building,” she says. “It exposes children to engineering at a young age.”

Sudsinsunthorn’s career at UAB also included an enviable summer internship with Harley-Davidson that helped dispel the stereotype of the egghead engineer. “When most people think of engineers, they think of people who crunch numbers,” she says. At Harley-Davidson, she found that while the work of an engineer does involve “a lot of problem solving, it is also very creative.”

Summit Toys came into play shortly after Sudsinsunthorn returned from her internship. In the fall semester of her senior year, both a friend and a professor—separately—tagged her as the ideal candidate for Summit’s mechanical engineering internship. She couldn’t refuse; after all, it was an internship at a toy company.

 

Ideas Into Action

That three-month stint ultimately spread into a career. From an internship that mostly involved running Excel spreadsheets and providing an extra hand on projects, she advanced to the role of project manager—in January of her senior year, seven months before she graduated from UAB. By the time she delivered her class’s commencement speech that December, she had been working at Summit for nearly a year and had already begun moving into the areas of sales, marketing, and customer service in addition to her job in research and development.

Today Sudsinsunthorn collaborates with Summit’s toy designers to turn big ideas into toys kids will want to play with. “We do a lot of the up-front engineering and a lot of figuring out how it’s going to work,” she says. “A designer will say, ‘I want it to fly 200 feet!’ Our job is to say, ‘Really?’” Once the design is both realizable and cost-efficient, Sudsinsunthorn works with overseas manufacturers to bring the toy to life.

“The best part of the job is testing the toys,” she says. “We get the first shot at the toys as soon as they come back. We’re seeing what we once saw in 2-D, on paper, in our hands in 3-D, actually working.”

It’s the kind of job that kids dream of and adults never expect to have—at least not with a 30-foot-tall robot at their side.

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