Girls get the skinny on lean manufacturing

11/07/2015 7:150 commentsViews: 3

More than 25 girls from local high schools Thursday got to see and experience a bit of what manufacturing is like, touring the Inteva plant and putting together an assembly line with a timed exercise.

The Alabama Technology Network and Gadsden State Community College brought students in for Girls Employed in Manufacturing, an event designed to change some perceptions of who can succeed in manufacturing and to draw attention to the opportunities a career in manufacturing can offer.

Students became involved because they were interested in manufacturing and their counselors recommended the program.

Their level of interest varied. Jamia Rudolph, Ashley James and Antonia Boyd said they were interested in manufacturing and had learned things they could apply to their lives. The Gadsden City High seniors all plan to go to college; they were unsure whether manufacturing would be part of their careers.

Cherokee County High School student Brittany Watson said she had a little experience with something like assembly-line work in her job at Jack’s. From what she learned in the morning session at Gadsden State, she said she could see ways to improve the process there.

McKenna McClellan, a junior at Glencoe High School, said she’s going to co-op at Honda Manufacturing next year and she hopes to work at the automotive manufacturer while she goes to college. She said the company works with students to balance work-school schedules.

McClellan said she believes women can perform well in manufacturing, even if the jobs are traditionally thought of as “men’s jobs.”

Nichole Regner, also a junior at Glencoe, said she’s a technology student. She was the only girl in her precision machinery class when she started, and now she’s doing better than most of the other students.

Attracting the female workforce is a serious consideration for manufacturers. The 2015 Women in Manufacturing Study said women are manufacturing’s largest pool of untapped talent. Women represent 47 percent of the workforce, the study found, yet they comprise less than one-third of the manufacturing workforce.

Gadsden Mayor Sherman Guyton spoke to students attending the event. Guyton has long been a proponent of career-tech education. Manufacturers are looking for well-trained workers when they look to locate new industries, Guyton has said, and high school students should be encouraged to take advantage of career tech education.

Gadsden State President Martha Lavender met with students as well. Lavender knows the importance of the many career-oriented educational programs offered at the school, and of the partnerships the college has formed over the years to help meet business and industry training needs.

Before the students divided into their teams — mixing students from one school with another — Jeff Lankford of the Alabama Technology Network talked to them about “Lean” manufacturing versus traditional manufacturing.

He gave an example: 4,000 parts for a manufactured item were drilled wrong and it was not discovered until the next step in the manufacturing process. A traditional view might look at the “five who’s,” as in, who’s to blame. Instead, lean manufacturing would look for answers to the “five why’s.”

Why wasn’t the problem discovered before 4,000 parts were drilled wrong? Because that’s the batch-size that was made. Why do we make such large batches? That’s the size of the containers. Why are the containers so large? So that a large number of parts can be moved at one time to the next step in the process. Why is the next step so far away?

Lankford said setting up the process so that it is efficient to work in smaller batches and so the steps of a process are not far apart are part of lean manufacturing. He talked to students about point-of-use storage — keeping the most often used tools close to the place where they will be used — and individual efficiency versus system efficiency.

As the girls prepared to create their own lean tube assembly lines, he told them each step of the assembly process needs to work at the same speed, to develop an efficient work flow.

Then the teams went to work.

They were given the task of assembling pipe fittings, tubes and elbow joints into a particularly shaped length of PVC.

First they separated pieces so each person in the assembly line had the parts needed to complete her segment on hand, with the diagram of what to do in front of them. There was some practice time, then students were instructed to work for two and one-half minutes, and to try to assemble 15 units, at a pace of 10 seconds per unit.

The teams did well, Lankford said. Only one team fell below the goal set — completing just 14 units. But they were getting faster as they assembled, he said, and would have made that 10-second pace had the exercise lasted longer.

The ATN instructors were pleased with the student accomplishments, and with the potential for women in manufacturing.

“You can go as far as you want to go,” Jon Bowen told the students.

“Women haven’t always had that opportunity.”

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