Release Date: September 29, 2020
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Ask Nathan DelSignore what he gained this summer from working at Baillie Lumber Co., and the answer comes easily.
He relishes knowing that his efforts will potentially lead to substantial company savings.
“In prior internships, I haven’t had the opportunity to provide that type of value to the company,” DelSignore says.
The experience was possible because of a University at Buffalo pilot program pairing rising electrical engineering seniors with a few companies in Western New York seeking technical assistance. Managed by the UB Center for Industrial Effectiveness (UB TCIE), the students spent 40 hours per week for 10 weeks contributing their engineering know-how while absorbing realities of the business world.
Each of the three students involved in the pilot was immersed in several aspects of the small- and mid-sized firms — a stark contrast to the cubicle consignments so often associated with internships at multinational companies.
“In addition to giving students formal technical knowledge, we need to give them hands-on experience,” says Jonathan Bird, PHD, chair of electrical engineering in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Scienes.
Bird and the UB TCIE team are well acquainted with a common industry gripe: While the university produces technically competent engineering graduates, they don’t always possess the knack for collaborating with and relating to various levels of the labor force.
Such sentiments were voiced during UB meetings with industry representatives over the prior year. The gatherings were part of an effort – led by UB TCIE and partially funded by New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s Climate Jobs NY initiative – to close critical workforce gaps between clean energy employers and Western New York educators.
Since Bird was part of those assemblies and heard the concerns firsthand, he collaborated with UB TCIE to support an experiential learning program. It would be modeled after UB TCIE’s Student Six Sigma Black Belt Certification program, which integrates students applying theory at a company with support from a UB mentor.
Thus, the electrical engineering summer program was born, with Bird acting as the students’ sounding board. Participating companies received the service at a reduced cost with a Strategic Partnership for Industrial Resurgence (SPIR) grant.
Companies would benefit from an extra hand. Students would learn from those who understand the nuances of a job or industry because they live it.
“Often the workers who don’t have the formal academic training have the experience,” Bird explains. “Those people have a huge wealth of accumulated knowledge that is so important to learn from.”
Aside from downsizing the pilot, the COVID-19 pandemic skewed one-on-one interactions for most students, requiring heavy reliance on remote discourse.
DelSignore’s role required a lot of virtual communications regardless, since his project assignment involved employees stationed at locations other than the company’s Hamburg headquarters.
He was enlisted to boost Baillie’s efforts of harnessing IoT (internet of things) technology and, in the words of Chief Technology Officer Gary Braunscheidel, “move the needle in areas of innovation that we just don’t have time to do.”
“To maintain our competitive edge and to grow, we’re looking at innovation and IT,” says Braunscheidel, referring to information technology. “We have a lot of different opportunities in innovations that we could leverage to introduce efficiencies.”
DelSignore was assigned to assess a pilot project staged at the company’s Blue Triangle Hardwoods facility in Everett, Pennsylvania. David Bosserman, information technology director at subsidiary American Hardwood in Virginia, had previously collaborated with a Baillie employee to build a prototype that utilizes IoT technology to better monitor kiln conditions.
Initial results demonstrated energy savings, evidenced by a reduction in the monthly electrical bill.
DelSignore gathered data and visited the Pennsylvania facility to observe the prototype in action. He thereafter devised a predictive model to calculate the apparatus’ probable savings at other Baillie facilities.
“There was a lot of room for my input and the direction I wanted to take,” he says when reflecting on the license granted.
He is also grateful for the bi-weekly check-ins with Bird, clarifying that it was comforting to receive guidance about the project, tips for handling situations and advice regarding future pursuits.
Work culminated in a cost analysis for scaling the solution across Baillie. The IT team has incorporated it into a business case presentation to management.
Bosserman acknowledges that without DelSignore’s focused dedication, completing the analysis would take much longer amid his daily responsibilities. “This is sort of a backburner, extracurricular project. What he was able to accomplish in 10 weeks maybe would have taken me a year.”
Bird hopes the UB program can scale up to be of similar service to even more companies next summer. He is also hopeful that it stimulates further linkages between local employers and UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Conversations and alliances with industry are important to informing academic programs.
“We are thinking of where our students are going once they leave and how their learning can be valuable to these companies,” he says. “We want to be partners in making this region successful.”