Release Date: January 13, 2020
BUFFALO, N.Y. – Talk to any working adult, and the typical story goes like this: too many competing priorities and too little time.
Sumitomo Rubber USA’s Tonawanda plant has found one way to help lighten the load. Two University at Buffalo engineering students arrived in September to assist with eight-month special assignments. They are part of the university’s Student Six Sigma Black Belt Certification program.
“It’s nice to have someone extra to work with on a project and make sure it gets completed more efficiently,” says Christopher Holzmann, a technology engineer at Sumitomo. “Not necessarily efficient as in being fast, but efficient in the sense that it’s completed correctly.”
Instead of a rapid-fire approach that is prone to multiple revisions or fizzles out with unfinished business, the UB method is one of tactical prudence. A program of UB’s Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE) in coordination with the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, it applies the Lean Six Sigma data-driven method to solve a specific problem.
It’s a win-win. The company benefits from brainpower focused on an issue. The students gain irreplaceable industry experience and a globally recognized credential.
The program is in its 16th year. Sumitomo has sponsored students over the past few years – this year the company is hosting Fanni Kozma and Manimanjari “Manjari” Vemula. Five other students are working at four other companies, which include manufacturers and nonprofits.
Each Black Belt candidate dedicates 14 to 16 hours per week over two semesters to pinpoint and eliminate a variance. TCIE provides guidance from a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and access to its Six Sigma curriculum. The company supplies a designated company contact and internal support.
“It’s nice to be able to help someone through the first steps when starting a job in the industry, so they have some better insight,” says Anthony Lauria, a Sumitomo industrial engineer overseeing and supporting Kozma. He relishes the chance to prevent someone from making the mistakes he made as a fresh graduate.
The program affords the first substantive work experience for some students, like Vemula. She is learning a lot: the intricacies of professionalism, and the nuances of presenting to professional engineers versus a classroom of peers.
She and fellow Black Belt candidates are also reacting to classroom-workplace disconnects. Kozma recalls the first time she uploaded company data into a software program. The results astonished her, and triggered a small bout of panic. “I’ve learned that in class we’re presented with perfect data and in life, that’s not a thing.”
Earning Black Belt certification requires successfully completing an improvement project and passing an exam. The distinction is one that both Kozma and Vemula once perceived as unreachable.
“I’ve met a couple of Black Belts and they’ve always been really intimidating because they seemed like they had this world of knowledge that no one else could ever touch,” says Kozma, who expects to earn her master’s degree in engineering management this spring. “But doing the program, I’m becoming more comfortable. I’m applying everything I’ve learned in school in an actual work setting.”
Vemula concedes it has influenced her attitude toward schoolwork. “I feel like I study with a little more zeal because I know I’m going to apply it later.”
She aims to reduce Sumitomo’s non-reusable scrap emitted throughout the tire-making process. The ultimate goal is to cut recycling costs.
“There’s not really an accurate way to measure that scrap,” says Vemula, who is studying industrial and systems engineering in pursuit of a master’s degree. “So I’m working on a procedure to track the waste first, then the reasons for why it’s being scrapped, and subsequently how to reduce it.”
Meanwhile, Kozma is devising a process to reduce changeover time variation of Sumitomo’s newest automated machines. Lauria explains that the machines are capable of producing the largest volume of daily output at the highest level of quality. Hence, their optimal operation is crucial.
As a first-time project supervisor, Lauria has new appreciation for Six Sigma’s structure and data’s critical role in making decisions. He also believes that sustainability – a typically elusive characteristic – is integral to success in manufacturing. UB’s program has shown him that it is possible.
“It’s really beneficial to the plant,” Lauria says of the program. “For every project I’ve observed and have been partially part of, there’s always been some value that’s come out of it, whether it’s information or some change of procedures.”
TCIE is planning the 2020 Student Six Sigma Black Belt Certification and invites companies to sponsor one or more students. The program will begin in May and end in December.