Teaching Adults: The Example Of New Plant Design

I have recently been involved in discussions of methods to teach adult learners and the ways if differs from teaching children or young adults. My personal experience is exclusively with adult professionals in a continuing education mode, and I provided examples from my recently most successful course, on New Plant Designdeveloped in 2005 at the request of the Hong Kong Productivity Council, and given more than 15 times in China since, and twice in Russia, although never in the US or Western Europe.

2005 was a time of rapid growth in manufacturing in China, with many companies building new plants and experiencing a shortage of skilled engineers and managers. The audience for this class in Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta was mostly professionals in their 30s, with responsibilities that would have been given to more senior staff in the US or Europe. Later, in Shanghai for China Inno, the audiences also included expatriates, mostly from Europe and Australia. 

Researching the English-language literature on the subject, I was surprised to find how few books there were and how old they were:

 The challenge was to integrate the valuable concepts in these aging books with Lean Manufacturing, and present them in an accessible way. Author Quarterman Lee, a long-time online friend, kindly agreed to review my materials and provided valuable feedback. Following are three approaches that I used to communicate with my audiences:

  1. Analyzing satellite pictures of factories
  2. Group discussions of participant projects
  3. Simulation games
  4. Conclusions

Analyzing satellite pictures of factories

The idea is to let general principles emerge from a collection of cases, focussing on a factory’s external interfaces as one of the design issues that need to be addressed, particularly organizing the arrival and departure of people, receiving materials, and shipping finished goods. As discussion starters, I used Google Earth images of factories in industries like semiconductor fabrication, computer assembly, aircraft assembly, or car assembly, some located in areas where employees commute with their own cars, others where they rely on company shuttles, and others where they use public transportation.

A few of these pictures are shown below. The Intel Rio Rancho plant and built on land owned by Intel that had been gradually filled up with production facilities over more than 30 years. At its peak, this was the largest semiconductor fabrication plant in the world. Its latest fabrication area, Fab11X was the state of the art in 2011, but no longer is, and the site is now on the decline. Almost no truck is visible in the picture of the Intel plant. That’s because transforming raw silicon wafers into chips is a 500-operation process that does not consume or produce a great bulk of materials. By contrast the Dell facility in Austin, TX, now closed, was comprised of three, identical, leased buildings, each surrounded by dozens of trucks. It assembled tens of thousands of computers everyday, receiving large volumes of packages electronic components and shipping equally bulky desktops and servers. 

The other two pictures contrast an American and a Russian plant both involved in aircraft manufacturing. In aircraft plants, the finished products fly off a runway. The two plants are comparable, because Renton builds the Boeing 737, and Irkut will produce the MC-21 which is intended to compete with the 737. From space, Boeing Renton looks clean and modern; Irkut’s plant, old and decrepit, but it’s a cold-war era plant, and its appearance to satellites flying over is intended to camouflage rather than impress. 

On satellite pictures, a tell-tale sign of an aircraft plant is the runway used to ship the finished products. At Renton, the 737s fly off over the water; at Irkut, over populated urban areas. In 1997, an Antonov 124 cargo plane carrying two Su-27 fighter jets bound for Vietnam crashed over the city, razing a city block, which is now a memorial park.

I also use many other examples. Most car assembly plants, for example, are utilitarian and designed to put out one car every minute, but the Porsche plant in Leipzig, Germany, is dominated by its visitor center, and seems intended more as a showcase for customers than as a production facility. 

These pictures spark discussions about design goals and lead to straightforward conclusions about the need to keep truck and pedestrian traffic physically separated, to dimension docks and access paths appropriately for incoming and outgoing traffic that may involve different volumes, and to position the plant with respect to the overall transportation network, suppliers, and customers.

The examples highlight both examples of effective designs and of costly mistakes that are sometimes impossible to fix once the plant is built. I felt it was necessary to discuss these issues as a result of having witnessed the consequences of neglecting them in plant design, including accident-prone areas shared by people and trucks, traffic jams of trucks on a too narrow access road, and employees waiting in line to check in or out of the facility. Starting from these pictures made the point more eloquently than bullet checklists on slides. 

Group discussions of participant projects

At the beginning of the class, I ask for a volunteer to present a current project to the group. The request is to present about 5 slides, ending with one or two questions for the other participants to discuss. As much as possible, this presentation is given at the end of day 1, for the discussions to take place at the start of day 2.

The participants are split in groups of 5 to 6, at round tables, with a seating plan that separates employees from the same company. Each table has a flip chart, and the groups have 15 minutes to come up with answers, with the presenter and I on hand to assist as needed. Then each group has one member present its findings on the flip chart, and I add my comments once all the presentations are finished.

As the cases presented are not known ahead of time, this requires improvisation. I have two case studies from my own experience in reserve, in case no volunteer can be found, but I have not needed them yet.

Simulation games

I have used the LegoTractors simulation game to have two teams in parallel go through two iterations of redesign on a tractor assembly line in an afternoon, each time executing a production plan and measuring performance. This serves two main purposes:

  1. It’s the next best thing to actually designing a plant as part of the course.
  2. It introduces the use of simulations in actual line design projects

The following pictures are from a session in St. Petersburg, Russia:

In simple cases, board game simulations with Lego blocks or erector set hardware can be used to debug designs. In more complex cases, like robotic welding of car bodies, you use software simulations, a topic that is beyond the scope of this course.

Software simulation of robotic weldingConclusions

I have used the analysis of Google earth images and group discussions in classroom training, not online, and can envision how these approaches could be used online. But simulation games are a different challenge. Production simulation software and multiplayer online games both exist, but, to my knowledge, not a production simulation online multiplayer game. Its development would be a substantial project, but it is quite possible that a supplier of production simulation software would be interested in taking it on.

#AdultLearning, #NewPlantDesign, #ContinuingEducation, #Lean