Engineering Center Turns Students into Real-World Problem Solvers
Nadia M. Whitehead | February 06, 2015 | UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS
Senior industrial engineering student Eloy Deras walks CareFusion's manufacturing production line. Deras is working to improve the line's efficiency with his technical engineering skills.
Photo courtesy of Eloy Deras.
When Eloy Deras was challenged to apply his engineering skills to a real-life problem, he knew exactly where to go for ideas: the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center (TMAC).
Based at The University of Texas at El Paso, the center regularly sends skilled engineers out to solve hundreds of issues local businesses and companies face. The assistance provides the manufacturers with the tools and expertise necessary to become more efficient in the business world.
"TMAC provides technical, operational and business assistance to the manufacturing community to help them become more competitive," said Hilario Gamez, director of the center that serves the Paso Del Norte region.
Oscar H. Salcedo, director of corporate relations at UTEP, added, "But at the same time, it's a great place for our engineering students to work on real-world problems."
Students within the College of Engineering can piggyback on TMAC's projects to build their own portfolio, Salcedo explained. Many regularly reach out to the center to find hands-on learning experiences where they can put their technical skills to work.
Industrial engineering student Deras is just one example.
In search of a process for which he could create virtual simulations for an upper-level course, Deras was connected with Lucchese, a luxury boot manufacturer based in El Paso.
After the company agreed that an assignment was possible, Deras and several classmates visited the boot production plant. They toured the facility and took notes about the production line, observing how the boots were created from start to finish.
Afterward, the team was told that the company would soon be reconfiguring their production floor; Lucchese wanted to ensure the change would increase efficiency and lead to a faster boot-making time.
"We're trained to look for flaws and to notice how production systems can be improved," Deras said. "So many times we are asked to make suggestions with our analysis."
That's where Deras' particular knowledge of simulations was applied. Using the computer program Arena, he created before and after models of the process. One version showed the original production line — a straight line that ran from one end of the room to the other. The simulation depicted how the boots slowly took shape as they moved from one process to the next and between workers.
The other model showed the promising new configuration: a U-shaped production line. Mathematical calculations by the students provided further insight, predicting the time the product would take at each stage and how many employees were involved.
The team then presented company managers and engineers with their simulations.
"Our project helped show some of the benefits that would come about with the change," Deras said. "For instance, the U-shaped line could lead to fewer operators being involved in the whole process."
Bill Tseng, Ph.D., professor and chair of industrial, manufacturing and systems engineering (IMSE) at UTEP, said one of the college's goals is to provide engineering students with experiential education.
"TMAC is a resource to help us do just that," Tseng said. "They're great at identifying these experience opportunities for our students."
Deras, who is preparing to graduate this May, said he is grateful for the opportunities he gained through TMAC. The hands-on experience with Lucchese is listed on his resume and may be why he already has a job waiting for him once he finishes school.
Before he graduates, Deras will participate in another TMAC-arranged project with CareFusion, a health care product manufacturer with a factory in El Paso.
"My team has been challenged to find a way to reduce the length of time employees spend on tasks related to one product," he said. "This could optimize their operations practices."
The team also will try to fix bottlenecks in the line – particular parts in the manufacturing procedure where a process slows down or comes to a halt, wasting valuable time and money.
Deras and his team have about two months to work out the issues, but he is confident they will figure something out.
He said, "This is what our degrees have prepared us for."
TMAC is funded by the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program within the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The program is committed to strengthening U.S. manufacturing, continually evolving to meet the changing needs of manufacturers.