By David Goddard
If you ask someone what comes to mind when they hear the word laboratory, you’ll most likely get answers like beakers, Bunsen burners, and microscopes.
But what about conveyor belts, assembly loops, and packing machines? These are the most prevalent tools found in the unique UT research facility known as the Factory Floor Laboratory.
Conceived by Rapinder Sawhney and his colleagues in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, the FFL is all about collecting and analyzing data. Its specialty is a type of data severely lacking in the modern business world: real-time feedback.
“Small things can make a big difference in the amount of time spent producing a product,” said Sawhney, professor and Heath Fellow in Business and Engineering. “We gather knowledge to help engineers design better setups for their businesses that can reduce costs, increase profits, and make everything more competitive.”
The lab features a manufacturing process area, dominated by an intricate conveyor system consisting of an outer loop with two possible offshoots into inner loops that can be configured to meet a client’s needs.
Several stations along the conveyor and around the perimeter allow student “workers” to assemble, box, label, and ship the product being simulated. Scanners and cameras along the conveyor and at the production stations record and time the methods being tested.
The monitoring room next door is separated from the manufacturing floor by a window for additional visual observation. A bank of computers continuously crunches the various data streams.
Lean on Me
Sawhney—a leading expert in lean manufacturing—decided he wanted to look at the process from a new perspective. “While most analysis of business takes into account a particular area of the process, we wanted to do something bigger in the hopes of finding overlooked areas,” he explained.
This roots-up approach blossomed from the idea that observing the whole manufacturing process from start to finish, as opposed to individual components, would provide a grand view not typically afforded to business analysis.
For example, a company making children’s blocks is losing money even though sales remain steady. Instead of disrupting their ongoing production by tinkering with different ideas to increase output, they can have the experts at FFL do it for them.
Not only will the lines keep rolling, but calling upon the lab’s deep knowledge base can help the company avoid changes that might lead to ineffective results or even make things worse.
Having a test floor that can be configured on a case-by-case basis ensures the most pertinent information gets into the client’s hands. “Every company is different and has different needs, so while some things naturally carry over from one business to the next, you can’t just say ‘this is how we do it’ and make the business try to fit,” Sawhney said. “You have to listen to what they really need and adjust accordingly.”
The information gathered for each client is referred to as smart info—smart because of its relevance and because it is immediately available to study and implement.
The initial reports influence which tweaks are made. Once they are in place, an entirely new set of data is generated and analyzed. This ebb and flow is what sets the lab apart, and what has clients—who can’t be named for confidentiality purposes—lining up for help.
“Being able to identify important data, get it to the client, and then make changes is crucial for businesses now,” Sawhney said. “Our style, our setup, and our data flow with the business.”
Studies have shown that out of all the data available to decision makers—in the business world or elsewhere—perhaps less than 1 percent is actually used to make decisions. Most of the time leaders act on instinct, ignoring or overlooking key data.
Sawhney doesn’t necessarily believe that a higher percentage of data needs to be considered, just as long as that the 1 percent is relevant. Otherwise, the enormous effort undertaken to collect data becomes wasted time that could have been put to better use elsewhere.
The lab’s ability to make companies more efficient is also expected to start paying dividends as a catalyst for economic development in the East Tennessee region. However, Sawhney encourages potential clients from outside the area as well to visit the lab and learn more about the science of saving money.