Engineering service solutions

Pamela Krewson Wertz
Image: Penn State

Sergio Viscarra, Jabel Warren and Steven Prigg present their team’s model of the proposed floor layout to the ENCS inventory team at a status meeting this semester. (Not pictured: Max Augenstein and Siddarth Patel)

Penn State Enterprise Networking and Communication Services looks to engineering students to help improve processes

May 1, 2018

Anita (Ferraco) Woodman is an industrial engineer by trade. It is second nature for her to observe a process and start evaluating if it can be made more efficient.

In her current role as a value stream manager for Penn State’s Enterprise Networking and Communication Services (ENCS), she is tasked with monitoring the unit’s processes and identifying the change that could be made to improve efficiencies. That is quite a big job considering ENCS is responsible for providing network, telephone and video services across the University, including at all of the Commonwealth Campuses.

Woodman estimates that there are more than 100 products and services offered by ENCS, whether it is installing phones, designing new video conferencing systems, or deploying new research networks. So when her supervisor, Phil Devan, asked Woodman to develop value stream maps for these items last summer, she naturally examined what needed to be done, determined the enormity of the endeavor, and decided it would be beneficial to get more people involved in the process.

“A value stream map is a lean process that is focused on delivering value,” explained Devan. “There is a sequence of events that occur from the time a request comes in until it is resolved and the customer is, hopefully, satisfied. Documenting those steps is what we are after so that we, as a unit, can see where our processes are getting held up and identify some solutions to make things run smoother.”

As a Penn State alumna with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial engineering (IE), she turned back to her “home,” the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, for some guidance. She was put in touch with Charlie Purdum, assistant teaching professor and director of industry relations for the department, who suggested ENCS consider sponsoring a project through the Learning Factory. Woodman felt this had big potential for expanding her capacity to fulfill Devan’s directive.

“I knew we would benefit from having some IE students come in, talk to our staff, see how things operate, and have them work on developing these maps for at least a few of our services,” said Woodman. “After talking with Charlie, I saw this was not only a plus for me but could be beneficial for the students as well, and fun.”

ENCS signed on as a sponsor for a capstone design project to assist in value stream mapping for its networking services and voice services in fall 2017. Six IE students worked on the project, with three students working on the networking services side and three on the voice services side.

“I think one of the most interesting parts about the initial project was that it was pretty open-ended,” said Katie Heininger, a Schreyer Honors College Scholar who was one of the six students that worked on the project. “The way that Anita approached us was to say, ‘Here’s what we want to accomplish but there are a multitude of ways that you can do that.’ So once we got working, we realized that while our two subgroups were working on two different systems, the pieces of the systems paralleled each other so our groups were able to share and bounce ideas back and forth.”

During the semester-long project, Woodman brought the students in to meet with the ENCS staff that handles network and voice services, and the students were able to hear for themselves the problematic issues employees saw within the systems.

“Anita works with these people every day so it was good to have her there with us when we presented ideas or asked for input,” said John Haugen, another of the IE students on the project. “In the end, we were able to incorporate some of the staff’s ideas and find ways to reduce the amount of time that was spent on an issue that was reported while maximizing the value to the customers.”

Both Heininger and Haugen think that the project proved even more rewarding because it was a “front-burner issue” and their suggestions were well received by ENCS.

“It was particularly rewarding having a unit at Penn State be our sponsor because we knew it was going to impact the university that we are so invested in every day,” said Heininger. “We could see specific issues that people turn to ENCS to solve and know that after all our hard work, we helped solve a real problem.”

Following the success of the project in the fall, ENCS signed on to sponsor another project this semester.

“We have a future ENCS inventory location that is set apart from the ENCS main offices. We wanted to get some new ideas on the layout so it makes the most sense, is efficient, and is safe for our employees,” explained Woodman.

The inventory warehouse project came to the students as an empty floor plan — aside from some fixed areas including office space and common areas — from which the students designed and developed the best layout based on their engineering backgrounds.

“We are working on material flow and accessibility through the warehouse, taking into account optimization in terms of safety, cost and inventory management as a whole through this project,” said senior Steve Prigg, one of the four IE students on the capstone team this semester.

Senior Sergio Viscarra, another IE student, was excited to apply what he has been learning in the classroom to a real issue at Penn State and see the direct benefits of that knowledge.

“Our IE courses that focus on workforce optimization and environmental aspects to make a workplace safer have helped us tremendously while working on the warehouse layout and flow,” he said. “In addition, our classes on inventory management and forecasting techniques have provided us with a solid background to bring to this project, in particular.”

Jabel Warren, the lone mechanical engineering student on the team, echoed Viscarra’s views on applying the theories and techniques he has been studying at Penn State.

“It’s one thing to learn things in the classroom or go over theories in homework, but it’s a totally different story when you have to go out and apply it in a real-world setting,” he said.

Woodman serves as the go-to person at ENCS for the students on the project, and they are grateful for her support and encouragement. She has set up meetings between the students and the inventory staff, an aspect the students have found to be invaluable.

“The ENCS inventory staff has been very open and receptive to us coming in and observing their systems to see what’s working and what isn’t,” said IE student Max Augenstein. “They gave us a lot of input and it was so helpful to talk to them and hear what they thought the major issues were so we could be sure to take that into consideration.”

The team is using LEGO Bricks to design the layout of the warehouse floor and the employees’ stations, which has brought some fun to the team dynamic — and among the ENCS staff as well.

“This has been a really good excuse to get to play with LEGOs again,” joked Prigg.

The LEGO Bricks allow the students the flexibility to alter their layout after presenting the different iterations of their work and getting feedback from staff and supervisors within ENCS.

As the semester comes to a close with the Engineering Design Showcase on the horizon, the students say that getting to work on a pressing issue that is helping Penn State improve has been a powerful experience for them.

“To me, it is personally rewarding to help make people’s jobs easier and to help build something that improves a system that gets used each and every day,” said Jabel.

Augenstein is thankful to have had some additional real world experience before graduating in May.

“You can have the mindset in the classroom to get good grades but you might not have the team experience to get a job like this done, and this has been both educational and rewarding,” he said.

From the sponsor standpoint, Woodman could not be happier with the capstone project teams she has worked with, and she encourages organizations from both inside Penn State and outside companies to take advantage of the Learning Factory system and the engineering students available to take on large projects.

“I went into the first project with a need to help myself and ENCS. But it’s much bigger than that; it’s also an opportunity to engage with students, and that’s one of the great parts about being here at Penn State,” said Woodman. “Students see what we’re doing as a university firsthand, and it’s a good learning experience for both them and us as sponsors.”

Update: the Optimizing Inventory Warehouse Relocation project won first place for the Lockheed Martin Design Excellence Awards for best project.