Wesley Salandro launched his engineering career at BMW while still a Clemson University Ph.D. student, held leadership positions at two startups in two different industries and now helps build rockets as director of Falcon stage integration and composites production for SpaceX.
It’s enough to fill an entire career, but Salandro is just getting started.
The 36-year-old Pittsburgh native, who holds a doctorate in automotive engineering from Clemson, was recently recognized as one of the most outstanding young manufacturing engineers by the nonprofit Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME).
Salandro’s path to early-career notoriety sharpens the focus on the University’s automotive engineering program at a critical time for the program and its home, the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR).
Clemson is expanding its offerings at the Greenville, South Carolina campus to help industry meet the fast-growing demand for electric vehicles and the batteries that power them. Those new offerings include the nation’s first Bachelor of Science program in automotive engineering.
Salandro’s career path, barely more than a decade in the making, is one example of how CU-ICAR serves as a launchpad for leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs of the future and shows the broad utility of a background in automotive engineering.
While at Clemson, Salandro helped set up a manufacturing processes lab from scratch, worked full-time at BMW and collaborated with his advisor, Laine Mears, on a book they co-wrote, “Electrically Assisted Forming: Modeling and Control.” Research they did together, along with Cristina J. Bunget, won a George Stephenson Gold Medal from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the United Kingdom.
Salandro’s position with BMW allowed him to learn from production workers and understand how the production line worked. It was a unique experience that made his Clemson research more relevant to industry than if he had stayed in a lab on campus.
Salandro and Mears reunited in June at SME’s annual conference in Detroit. Salandro was recognized as a 2023 Delcie Durham Outstanding Young Manufacturing Engineer, and Mears won the SME Education Award, one of the nonprofit’s International Honor Awards.
Salandro joined Clemson in 2009 after receiving his Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from Pennsylvania State University. He began working for BMW as part of a Clemson internship program, an opportunity that later became a full-time position as an assembly-production quality engineer.
Salandro finished his Ph.D. studies in three years, even while working full time.
“I haven’t had another student perform with the level of efficiency and quality that Wes demonstrated,” said Mears, who now serves as chair of Clemson’s Department of Automotive Engineering and BMW SmartState Chair in Automotive Manufacturing.
“The rule of thumb is that you can’t work and do research at the same time, but he broke that rule and it has only benefited him. He conducted research and built models and then implemented them, helping prepare him for what he does now.”
After his 2012 graduation, Salandro stayed at BMW, taking a position at the MINI Cooper plant in Oxford, England and rising through the company’s ranks. By 28 years old, he had about 350 people working under him.
Salandro accepted a leadership position at a Silicon Valley startup, Lucid Motors, in 2016 and worked there nearly two years. In 2018, he accepted another leadership position with a different startup, Vector Launch.
Salandro joined SpaceX in 2019 and has steadily advanced, landing in his current role in 2023. As director of Falcon stage integration and composites production, Salandro leads teams assembling and testing parts to both stages of the Falcon 9 rocket, and also producing composite assemblies used throughout the Falcon and Dragon programs.
While Salandro isn’t the only Clemson automotive engineer who has gone on to a big career, he is one of the few who can say that his path is quite literally out of this world.
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