By David Terraso
ATLANTA, Ga.—A stellar product can only get a company so far in today’s global marketplace. A truly successful enterprise needs to be able to make quick adaptations to its manufacturing lines so it can respond as the market changes. It’s a tricky process requiring a deep understanding of the data and the organization’s systems and culture, which is why firms seek the guidance of the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute (GTMI).
“We help companies overcome barriers by applying researched technology and Georgia Tech’s expertise to the problem,” said Andrew Dugenske, director of the Factory Information Systems Center and principal research engineer at GTMI. He just completed a major effort with Steelcase, a century-plus-old company that designs workspaces around the people who use them.
“We like to say we are students of the workplace,” said Paul Noll, senior researcher at Steelcase. “We watch how people work. We study their behaviors. We study the activity. We learn, and then we build our products and services to support what we see.”
Steelcase approached GTMI, Noll said, not only because of the Institute’s superior reputation in manufacturing but also because they’ve found everyone at Tech has a natural curiosity for both the task and the culture of their partners.
“It was very much the professional work environment at Tech, as well as the expertise,” added Edward Vander Bilt, who leads the partnership at Steelcase.
Merging Expertise with Technology
Fundamental to their relationship is the industrial internet of things (IIOT), a term for using the information from the various sensors, computers, and robotic devices a company uses in manufacturing, to refine and even redefine the way the assembly line operates.
The Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute worked with Steelcase on an array of projects designed to improve the intelligence, responsiveness, and adaptability of its manufacturing lines. In one endeavor, it improved assembly lines by embedding them with Georgia Tech’s digital architecture. The digital systems move information from the lines into the cloud, where it can be processed. Then Steelcase uses the data to decide how to alter manufacturing processes.
“One of the big challenges of manufacturing is that some companies have legacy equipment, so it can’t easily transfer the information about its activities into the cloud,” said GTMI’s Dugenske. “We have developed a method to retrofit these lines so companies can use the industrial internet of things to their advantage.”
Now the company has expanded this capability to all its lines throughout North America.
“We’ve been using our digital architecture with several companies, and it’s worked really well for them,” added Dugenske.
Collaboration is the Name of the Game
Helping a firm improve elements as indelible as production processes isn’t something that can be accomplished after just a few high-level meetings. It’s a mission that requires understanding the wisdom of employees working on the lines.
“It was extremely collaborative,” said Vander Bilt. “Andrew Dugenske visited all of our factories in North America, observing and talking with the plant managers and leaders in a whole variety of disciplines to better understand how we operate as a company.”
And when it came time to implement the findings, Dugenske headed back on the road to help put those recommendations into practice. “It was quite intense,” added Vander Bilt, who said that one of the most valuable elements came from working with the graduate and undergraduate students.
Students built and installed prototypes in the factories and worked with Steelcase’s engineers to adjust to the conditions of each location. Vander Bilt said this gave the company high confidence that the solutions were the right ones.
Working at the Intersection of People and Technology
Steelcase and Georgia Tech have been working together since 2005 on projects around working environments and merging the physical and digital worlds.
“From the beginning of our relationship, they’ve described themselves as designing the future of how people interact with each other,” said Beth Mynatt, executive director of Tech’s Institute for People and Technology (IPaT).
Now [at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic], that future looks a little different from how it looked at the start of 2020, and remote working looks like it will be part of everyday life, added Mynatt.
Siva Jayaraman, IPaT’s strategic partnerships director, introduced Steelcase to GTMI. He has been working with the company for years on combining the physical and digital worlds through projects like telemedicine booths and spaces fostering collaboration and anonymity to help workers avoid the sometimes stultifying norms of business hierarchies.
“They’re trying to understand the evolving needs of workers and the new modalities, whether that’s remote, in the office, or both,” said Jayaraman. “Nobody knows clearly what that is going to look like, but we are helping them to understand it.”
Noll said he values the opportunity to explore the emerging thinking around human-centered technology that happens at GTMI, IPaT, and elsewhere at the Institute.
“Technology is integral to the work, but at the end of the day, we’re still human, and we want to be sure the decisions we make about bringing technology into our work are smart, responsible, and human-centered,” said Noll. “That’s why we like working with Tech.”
And when Noll says he likes working with Tech, he means it. Steelcase is also collaborating with the Scheller School of Business, the Supply Chain and Logistics Institute, the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines, the School of Materials Science and Engineering, and the School of Aerospace Engineering, to name a few.
It may be the Institute’s exceptional reputation that brings some companies to engage. Still, in the end, it’s the quality of the people that solidifies those relationships for years to come.
“We’ve found the more we invest in our relationships, the collaboration, the cooperation, the energy, expertise, and engagement, the more we value that partnership,” said Vander Bilt.
In this case, Steelcase had a hunch their manufacturing lines held information that would help them become more agile and efficient. And from their history working with Georgia Tech, they had a hunch that GTMI had the best people to do it. They were right.
David Terraso is a writer for Georgia Tech’s Research News Service.