Student Black Belt program improves company operations

Students at Saint-Gobain Ceramic Materials.

Published March 23, 2012 This content is archived.


Companies without the resources or time to concentrate on improving business operations are streamlining their processes through an innovative University at Buffalo program.

Since 2004, UB seniors and graduate students from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have assisted Western New York companies through UB’s Six Sigma Black Belt Student Certification Program. Founded by UB TCIE – the bridge between UB's engineering resources and the business community – the program involves students applying DMAIC tools and concepts to a company-specific project. The problem-solving approach eliminates process variation, ultimately leading to improved quality and cost savings.

“Sometimes we all get pulled into different projects or are stuck in our day-to-day tasks. This improvement project really had to be done to help the plant,” said Sonya Pegler, manufacturing engineer at Saint-Gobain Ceramic Materials, referring to work completed by UB student Benjamin Wilson in 2011.

The Wheatfield facility is one of 265 North American plants under Paris-based Saint-Gobain, the world’s largest building materials company with operations in 64 countries. Saint-Gobain Ceramic Materials manufactures abrasive grains used in sandpaper and grinding wheels.     

Wilson was tasked with increasing the yield of a product’s in-demand grain sizes to meet sales needs while decreasing waste. His efforts resulted in an increase in equipment capacity of more than 35 percent, as well as a decrease in waste from 21 percent to 8 percent.  

Increasing the consistency and operational efficiency of one product line was instrumental in the full-time job offer the company made to Wilson, which he accepted. His new process engineer responsibilities include transferring the improvements made and knowledge accumulated to other product lines of the plant.     

Wilson’s success is one example among projects that have benefited companies of all types, including manufacturers, healthcare providers and non-profit agencies. The program was developed after UB TCIE added industry-adopted continuous improvement methods, including Six Sigma and Lean, to its mix of consulting services and professional development training. It is among a handful of such programs offered by U.S. institutions of higher education.   

“I experienced, firsthand, Six Sigma while at Motorola in Elma, and saw how important it is to an organization’s overall quality and the breakthroughs it can provide,” said Timothy Leyh, UB TCIE executive director. “I consulted with the UB Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering to create a program whereby students could learn these same tools.”

Coursework equips students with knowledge of statistical methods and principles, and how to incorporate the DMAIC methodology for dramatically reducing errors by identifying the root cause. They commit 12 to 16 hours per week on site, over two semesters, to a project.    

Each student is supported by a UB TCIE Certified Six Sigma Master Black Belt mentor with varied and extensive industry experience, who works with company officials to identify a project that has defined outcomes and achievable results. The company is responsible for providing an internal support liaison to help the student navigate company nuances, which cultivates a stronger impact.     

Other project examples include:

  • Two students reduced the employee hiring cycle time at a non-profit organization by 40 percent.
  •  A manufacturing company slashed costs by up to $224,000 per year after implementing recommended solutions.
  • A system error uncovered at a healthcare organization led to an increase of $5 million in revenue.

“We got a huge benefit from the program,” said Saint-Gobain’s Pegler. “It’s nice because you get a fresh set of eyes. Our employees may overlook something because they’ve always done things a certain way, and the student may see something a little differently.”