LGO students get close-ups of big-time operations at eight companies
By Josh Jacobs, LGO Director of Operations and Partner Integration
MIT LGO first-year students continued their January tradition of taking a two-week cross-country tour to look inside advanced manufacturing and operations sites at industry partners. It was a unique view of the challenges that leading companies face and an "absolutely exhausting but rewarding experience," according to Sean Whipple.
This year's tour was the most extensive in LGO history, with visits to eight partner company sites from January 6-20, 2013. The Class of 2014, accompanied by several MIT faculty members and LGO staff, visited Novartis in Holly Springs, N.C., General Motors in Detroit, Amazon in Indianapolis, Caterpillar in Peoria, Ill., Nike in Portland, Boeing in Seattle and Everett, Wash., Dell in Austin, Texas, and Amgen in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
The students packed a lot of seeing and learning into a relatively short time period. In just a few hours at General Motors, for example, "we were able to see almost all of the steps it takes to make a car...all the way from the initial stamping of metal blanks to body shop where parts are welded together to final assembly where the electronics, seats, interior, engine, etc., are added to the car, and finally we saw them start up and drive off the line to the final testing," wrote Jane Guertin in her Supply Jane Operations blog.
Students were also impressed with the sheer size of the operations at places like Caterpillar (where they could climb on enormous earth-moving machines in the "big sandbox") and Amazon. "It was just simply overwhelming how much inventory they had at their distribution center and the operational madness that would have to occur to get everything in one door and out the other," Whipple wrote in his blog, "LGOh God What Have I Gotten Myself Into?"
The Boeing assembly plant in Everett where 787 Dreamliners are built is the largest building in the world by volume, Whipple noted, "and for a reason—those planes are REALLY BIG...the sheer magnitude of transporting the fuselage is incredibly difficult. They literally had to make a new plane called the Dreamlifter to do it." (Here's a video about how Boeing adapted its manufacturing methods for the earlier 777.)
The up-close views of world-leading operations companies offered many different connections between students' in-class learning and the real-world challenges that these companies face each day. At GM, students participated in a simulated work environment with wooden cars moving along a miniature assembly line. This simulated line, which is used to train plant operators, gave the class some practical exposure to lean manufacturing and line balancing concepts, which was "so much fun," Guertin said.
At the Boeing assembly plant in Everett, Chris Wilson noted, "I saw the use of kitting of tools to improve the assembly rate of the 787 fuselage, which is a concept we learned during Lean Tools," an LGO core course that all students take during their first summer at MIT.
After each stop on the trek, LGO program director Don Rosenfield and noted manufacturing expert Shoji Shiba led a debriefing for the group of students responsible for reporting on their impressions of each company. Both Rosenfield and "Shiba-sensei," as he was described by Jerry Chiang, have decades of experience working with operations companies, and they can track the evolution of long-time partners such as Amgen, Boeing, Dell and GM that have hosted plant trek visits for many years in a row.
As well as providing an opportunity to synthesize academic training and first-hand impressions, the student reports provide an outside perspective to which the partner companies give serious attention.
The plant trek also gave LGOs direct experience at companies at which they might do their internships or even continue their career after graduation. "I was struck by how much the students gleaned about the companies based on just a short tour and their discussions with management and employees," said MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Leigh Hafrey, LGO's leadership instructor.
"It was very interesting for me to see my classmates' interest crystallize around companies and industries as the trek went on," said Sarah Cooper-Davis.
At each stop along the way, the students also had the chance to enjoy local attractions such as Millennium Park in Chicago, Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland, and the mechanical bulls and unstoppable BBQ buffets of Austin.
Now that the plant trek is over, students are moving forward into their spring courses, or in a few cases plunging immediately into off-cycle internships starting in February. But while the LGO calendar stops for nobody, the behind-the-scenes view of eight partner companies remains as an important shared reference point in each LGO student's path to a career as a future manufacturing and operations leader.