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UI 'Lean' Course Spotlights Collins' Methods

Legos drill tightens manufacturing cycle, eliminates waste

By Dave DeWitte, The Gazette

Making toy plastic blocks into airplanes quickly was the least of it.

Twenty-nine students at the University of Iowa's first "Lean Academy" seminar here Tuesday found out how to ferret out inefficiency and waste in the value stream even in a Lego block manufacturing world.

Then, they attacked it, through round after round of process adjustment.

Lean manufacturing is a strategy for lowering manufacturing cycle time and cost by eliminating waste. It's been successfully embraced by Cedar Rapids-based aviation electronics supplier Rockwell Collins since 1998 under the name of "lean electronics," and shared with most of its suppliers.

Most of Collins' new hires arrive with little or no understanding of the concept, manager of Lean Electronics Thomas Bednar said. So, Collins approached UI about adding more lean manufacturing to its curriculum. The organizations worked with the Lean Aerospace Initiative at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a weeklong UI course.

Most of the students work in industry, but hadn't experienced anything like Tuesday's simulation. Teams of six competed to manufacture Lego airplanes for profit. Teams assigned separate members to manufacture of tail sections, fuselages, and wings, and one member to final assembly. Each also had a member handling supplier and quality issues, and a laptop computer with a simple accounting spreadsheet.

Plastic hourglasses tracked time spent on each step, and a team member tracked the number of parts in inventory. Place mats served as assembly plants, receiving warehouses and customer areas.

The customers wanted 12 aircraft per round. In the first round, the teams could only make about two.

"Realistically, your performance was pretty lousy," instructor Alexis Stanke of M.I.T. said, "and we're not going to give you unlimited budgets to improve it." Stanke started the teams on "value stream mapping." The process identifies each step in filling a order, and the time required in each step.

Teams were asked to calculate times and cost data for each step, and propose ways to lower cycle times.

As improvements such as product redesign and combining production steps were integrated, costs and cycle times plummeted.

Collins also uses Legos in its in-house simulation. "You should have heard our accounting department when we sent back a bill for $800 worth of Legos," Bednar said.


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