Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Behind the Scenes: Machine Shop as Business Process Lab

Kevin Baron runs a well-oiled shop. Photograph by Karen Endicott.

State-of-the-art machines and tools aren’t enough. For a machine shop to effectively foster student learning and building, it also needs an effective strategy for providing access to those tools.  

That’s the perspective that drives Kevin Baron, manager of Thayer’s machine shop. Baron, a staple of the Thayer experience for 18 years, says the shop itself functions as a well-oiled machine by adhering to methods of workplace organization pioneered at Toyota.  

“One of the great trends of our time is the standardization of work using digital tools to make better use of temporary, part-time workers, and that’s what we’re doing here,” says Baron, who routinely discusses best practices with visitors from other engineering schools.

Since its renovation and major equipment update five years ago, the Thayer machine shop has fully revamped its business processes, putting in place systems that enable safe, efficient access to all of the shop’s resources, both physical and knowledge-based. Through digitization and decentralization, the shop’s four professional instructors can effectively manage a staff of about 30 student assistants who work part-time and contribute to the learning and achievements of fellow students.

Taking advantage of an environment full of problem-solvers, Baron identifies problems within the shop that he hopes students in the school’s Master of Engineering Management (MEM) program can solve.

One problem was interruptions. Students would come into the shop looking for materials, such as glue or tape measures, for their course-related projects. MEM students found a solution: vending machines. They purchased four and stocked them with various shop necessities, which students can access for free.

The vending machine system is refined each year. MEM student Eric Beauregard ’19 and two classmates picked up the project last fall. They selected a single supplier for most of the 56 products available, enhanced a shared spreadsheet to better track inventory, and are working toward a barcode system to streamline reordering.

“The basic vending machine system was already in place, but there were multiple issues that we wanted to address and fix,” says Beauregard. “As MEM students, we want to create the system and set the process up so that it’s easy for an undergrad or someone else to come in and take over.”

MEM students have facilitated information-sharing by the machine shop through digital platforms: social media for scheduling, a wiki for instruction manuals and tutorials, and a blog for student articles about past projects. They also created a system for organizing tools within tool chests and drawers and are automating bookings for machine time, enabling users to maximize productivity and learning, Baron says.

Worker profiles cycle across a digital screen at the shop’s entrance, showing which staff members have completed the most training hours and tasks. MEM student Joris van der Herten Th’17 wrote the software and is continuing to work out the bugs. “The point,” explains Baron, “was to recognize achievement and to make it public,” a tenet of the Toyota system.

Another new system helps students identify shop workers who can answer specific questions. Skill areas are represented by colored dots on staff ID badges and a display board. This helps reception desk greeters match shop users with instructors and assistants “just like the maître d’ at a good restaurant,” says Baron.

These systems also generate shop usage data, explains Baron, including which machines are in highest demand. Reports help school administrators make informed decisions about courses and shop resources.  

“The machines alone are less than half the story,” says Baron. “The real challenge is providing access to these budding engineers.”

The machine shop, Baron adds, is central to producing graduates who not only understand engineering theory and concepts, but also can apply them in design and fabrication. “Nobody’s going to hire you to do problem sets,” he says. “They’re going to hire you to solve real problems.”  

—Kristen Senz

Categories: The Great Hall, Behind the Scenes

Tags: M.E.M., machine shop, students

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