Meet the Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 Recipient IEOR Alum Transforming Manufacturing

Willson Deng, Berkeley IEOR ’09

“[The] greatest opportunities arise in areas no one is looking at,” says IEOR ‘09 Alum Willson Deng. In a recent conversation with the department, Willson spoke about how he ended up in IEOR and how that developed his passion for digital manufacturing.

An affinity for numbers was what made Willson Deng decide to pursue Business Administration in Berkeley, with the hope of landing a job as a trader in Wall Street. He ended up shifting to IEOR in his second year, thanks to a friend who convinced him to attend an IEOR seminar.

“Initially, I decided to attend [the seminar] out of curiosity. It didn’t hurt that I got a couple of credits out of it,” Willson recalls. At that time, he had already completed a year as a BA major. After taking an investment banking internship, he said, “It was a great experience, but not something I was passionate about.”

Sitting in that seminar was the proverbial light bulb for him. “The complexity of manufacturing reeled me in. I started thinking how I could apply math and statistics to optimize production processes and supply chains.” As an IEOR student, his favorite subject was in discrete event simulations with Professor Lee Schruben. Apart from learning theories, the class also introduced him to real-world simulation — a tool that could be used on almost anything. “I started doing internships and taking on projects at manufacturing plants to learn all I could,” he shares.

“Professor Schruben became my mentor, and I was his TA in my senior year.” After graduation, Willson accepted a job at an early stage bio-manufacturing startup. He was employee number two. “I learned to code my first year on the job, because we didn’t have any software developers,” and Willson adds that coding turned out to be a pretty handy skill when paired with IEOR techniques.

“Working at the bio-manufacturing start up made me realize the need for transparency and visibility on the manufacturing floor across all industries,” he says.  To address that need, he would have to rewrite the software being used for these operations and ideas started to grow.

“I spoke with Lee on what I wanted to do, and we both agreed that I needed to learn more about the manufacturing industry and build my credibility in the field.” Prof Schruben suggested INSEAD, a top ranked graduate school well-known in the business community.

Willson then packed his bags and flew to INSEAD in France for his PhD. Part of the course requirement was spending two months at the school’s Singapore campus, meeting other PhD students. He started expanding his idea for a next generation manufacturing execution system (MES) solution with plans to set up his own company upon finishing graduate school. When his two-month exchange program ended, he found himself talking to one of his colleagues who was willing to write him a check to kickstart his idea. It was a big decision to make, as he would be dropping out of a fully paid PhD program within his first year. He asked for a month to think about his options.

Back in France, he made the decision to take the plunge. “Worst case scenario, everything fails, and I go and pursue a PhD program elsewhere, but [it’s] unlikely [that] I’ll be in the right time with the right opportunity to start a company again,” he explains. He completed the requirements for a Master’s Degree instead while getting his company started up in Singapore at the same time, alone as a single founder.

Arcstone, a manufacturing execution systems solutions company, was established in April 2013. In building his MES, Willson drew heavily on his courses in linear and non-linear optimization, control theory, and simulation to offer tool sets that run and manage production operations. Arcstone is also developing supply chain management tools, where data from the production floor is aggregated right up to the supply level to help suppliers globally integrate in a multi-level blockchain enabling just in time manufacturing and complete supply chain transparency, thereby benefiting the manufacturer and end consumers while reducing environmental damage. 

Singapore made the most sense as Arcstone’s base. The city-state offers a safe environment to hire, be stationed at, and grow within many emerging markets. Its location also makes sense given its proximity to manufacturers in the region.

Since then, Willson has been working tirelessly to transform the manufacturing industry using tools and solutions that help Fortune 500 companies to tiny machine shops digitize. He started championing the benefits of Industry 4.0 and digitization, making him a Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient in 2016. Not one to rest on his laurels, Willson continues to advocate IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), Industry 4.0 and digitization, frequently sharing his thoughts and ideas in publications, trade shows, webinars, and the media.

Willson believes that getting recognized for his work is validation that there is legitimacy to the value of industrial engineering. The work done with IE is a critical part of everyone’s life that is often taken for granted. Earlier this year, when things fell apart due to the impacts of COVID, was an example of how far-reaching IE’s impact is.  And this impact is what drew Willson to the manufacturing space — old and neglected, it offered an ideal opportunity for revamp.

Willson believes that IEOR gives one the best tools and foundations but merging these to solve problems in the real world is up to the individual. While he chose software development for manufacturing, there are still countless opportunities to apply IEOR in fields such as agriculture, power generation, and waste management. “There are still a lot of areas that need to be improved, and you, as an IEOR graduate, can make a difference. One of the most satisfying things is that you yourself would know that you have made a directional shift in the industry and that is going to stay with you for the rest of your life.”

Vishrut Rana