Building Future ConnectionsAugust 26, 2017
Story by Allen Laman
Photos by Dave Weatherwax
Professors everywhere preach the importance of internships and how they should prepare students for their post-college careers, so why, then, would a group of teens and 20-somethings whose majors have largely nothing to do with mechanical engineering choose to spend their summer on the bustling shop floor at Jasper Engines & Transmissions?
JET’s Connect With Jasper internship opened the factory’s door to seven college students — Indiana State University accounting and finance sophomore Kevin Diaz; Western Kentucky University marketing junior Beau Bueltel; Indiana University Southeast journalism sophomore Caitlen LaMarche; Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis mechanical engineering senior Aaron Boehm; WKU exercise science sophomore Paige Priest; University of Southern Indiana accounting and finance sophomore Emma Fraze; IUPUI mechanical engineering junior Sam West.
One JET associate, Juan Ramos, worked with the interns as they routinely clocked full-time days dedicated not to fetching coffee or completing other menial tasks, but to dropping the reproduction time of two crucial parts of the transmissions remanufactured at the local plant. They were tasked with making meaningful changes to the way the plant operates.
This was, of course, intimidating to youngsters accustomed to hitting the books and cramming for exams. Breaking down the pump process and redesigning a workbench that accommodated the work was certainly a change of pace.
“This is out of my element,” Fraze admitted in July.
But upon completion, the group of unlikely engineers reached their goal of increasing the number of pumps produced each day at the Power Drive facility at JET, and eventually, the plant will implement a layout change that will result in more dollars saved based on the group’s findings.
Participants say the internship — which consisted of a daily hands-on lean manufacturing workshop on the factory floor and time with mentors in their respective areas of study, a community service project that involved building a shelter house at the Dubois County Humane Society and other grounds improvements, and weekly seminars that covered topics like personal money management and generational differences in the workplace — helped them better prepare for life in and after college.
But it was still jarring for them in the beginning. The amount of time she’d spend on the workshop floor came as a surprise to Fraze and some of her fellow interns. Fraze thought the internship would focus more on community service than the technical aspects of building the guts of a vehicle. Minus Boehm and West, none of the group members understood the first thing about building engines.
So, logically, what did they do their first week at the plant? Half of the group built an engine, the other pieced together a transmission, both of which would later be shipped out and installed in vehicles. Along the way, they learned that the pump is considered the heart of the transmission, providing fluid for operation, and the valve body is the brain, telling the complicated machine what to do.
Workshop leader and JET production system manager Craig Leuck later broke it down in layman’s terms to this ignorant reporter: When you jam your foot on the throttle to pass a vehicle on the interstate, the valve body recognizes the force and revs your engine. The pump provides the fluid flow for sufficient lubrication and operation of the transmission.
After the interns nailed down the ins and outs of building engines and transmissions, they were armed to find ways to increase the rate of production of the mechanical hearts and brains, the pumps and valve bodies. The team began studying shop associates’ workbench configurations, looking for ways they could shave time off the remanufacturing process and eliminate fluctuations.
The interns’ workshop time focused largely on the process of disassembling, cleaning and remanufacturing the two mechanical pieces. They didn’t alter the individual processes, but rather looked into ways of making them smoother and more intuitive, speeding up the production’s takt time — the rate at which a finished product needs to be completed in order to meet customer demand — in a way that maintains the quality of the product.
“Our goal is basically to produce the most amount of product with the least amount of resources possible,” Leuck said. “So, you won’t see us spending thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars out here doing what we do. We’re applying common sense principals. We’re looking at body mechanics and movement.”
Leuck said this involves limiting any and all inefficiencies — even those as small as a JET associate grabbing a tool with one hand and transferring it to the other before using it.
And as a result of the time invested by the team, the pump and valve body production process has been redefined into two less work-stations. This was a win, and it will allow JET to better utilize its resources in other areas.
“If we can free up resources and use them in those other places, it’s going to save the company money,” Leuck said.
JET took the basic premise for the internship from Climax Portable Machining and Welding Systems, one of the many companies who presented at the 2013 Association for Manufacturing Excellence conference in Toronto. JET Human Resources Generalist Kate Schwenk and Vice President of Drivetrain Remanufacturing John Schroeder said collegiate underclassmen are targeted for the three-month workshop program because many freshman and sophomore students are still discovering what they want to do and aren’t looking for more major-specific internships like their upperclassman counterparts. They want to see the young adults grow through their experiences.
This summer marked the program’s fourth year. Counting this year’s class, 27 interns have graduated from the program and four have returned to work full-time for the company.
“This is going to teach them a lot of different skills that they wouldn’t get somewhere else,” Schroeder said. “What we’re trying to show them is that you learn a lot of theory in school, but here you’re going to be able to see how engineering impacts the company. How accounting ties to manufacturing. How what (they) do has an impact.”
He said the end result is participants getting a better idea of what they want to do with their lives when the internship is all said and done.
Several of this year’s participants hope to return to JET after college graduation. Fraze and fellow accounting and finance student Diaz recognized that their experience with the JET Connect program was a sort of an “Undercover Boss” spinoff, with the interns being able to take what they’ve learned from the frontlines and put it to use, even if they eventually occupy offices off the floor.
Both Diaz and Fraze previously interned in the company’s accounting office, and then, the codes used to signify the status of engine builds didn’t mean much to them. They were just numbers. After this past summer with the Connect program, the two now know exactly what the codes mean.
“They want us to know what we’re accounting for,” Fraze said. “It kind of ties both things together, so we actually know what we’re talking about.”
At their final graduation celebration, the interns shared their successes: They dropped the takt time of pump production from 39 minutes to 33 minutes, which Leuck said should facilitate the addition of seven more pumps in an eight-hour shift.
The team also changed the way JET cleans its oil pans to drop takt in the valve body area. Participants focused on transitioning from sandblasting oil pans by hand to using a shot blasting machine, which eliminates the ergonomic challenges that come with a manual process. Ultimately the use of the machine will allow JET to rebalance its process further, resulting in even more saved time and resources.
The intern associates felt confident the step outside their comfort zone set them up for something great, even if it was intimidating at first. About two weeks removed from the program, the participants already noticed the lingering effects of the seminars and life skills courses they attended.
In addition to the confidence and improved communications skills Priest acquired in the internship, she learned to always ask questions — something she says has already translated to a feeling that she’s learning more back at school. Diaz said his improved time management skills are helping him knock out homework in between classes. Bueltel reflected back on the generational differences seminar, saying he recognizes he’s better equipped to work with his college professors.
“My biggest takeaway was probably (to) set a goal and go for it,” Priest said at the interns’ graduation. “If that doesn’t work out then learn from it.”
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