Published January 23, 2020
Two UB engineering students are helping to lighten the load at Sumitomo Rubber USA’s Tonawanda plant this year by assisting the company through eight-month special assignments as part of the university’s Student Six Sigma Black Belt Certification program.
“It’s nice to have someone extra to work with on a project and make sure it gets completed more efficiently,” says Christopher Holzmann, a technology engineer at Sumitomo. “Not necessarily efficient as in being fast, but efficient in the sense that it’s completed correctly.”
Instead of a rapid-fire approach that is prone to multiple revisions or fizzles out with unfinished business, the UB method is one of tactical prudence. A program of UB’s Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE) in coordination with the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, it applies the Lean Six Sigma data-driven method to solve a specific problem.
It’s a win-win: The company benefits from brainpower focused on an issue, while the students gain irreplaceable industry experience and a globally recognized credential.
The program is in its 16th year. Sumitomo has sponsored students over the past few years, including this year’s Black Belt candidates Fanni Kozma and Manimanjari “Manjari” Vemula. Five other UB students are working this year at four other companies, which include manufacturers and nonprofits.
Each Black Belt candidate dedicates 14 to 16 hours per week over two semesters to pinpoint and eliminate a variance. TCIE provides guidance from a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and access to its Six Sigma curriculum. The company supplies a designated company contact and internal support.
“It’s nice to be able to help someone through the first steps when starting a job in the industry so they have some better insight,” says Anthony Lauria, a Sumitomo industrial engineer overseeing and supporting Kozma. Lauria says he relishes the chance to prevent someone from making the mistakes he made as a fresh graduate.
The program provides the first substantive work experience for some students, like Vemula. She says she’s learning a lot, such as the intricacies of professionalism and the nuances of presenting to professional engineers versus a classroom of peers.
She and her fellow Black Belt candidates are also reacting to classroom-workplace disconnects. Kozma recalls the first time she uploaded company data into a software program. The results astonished her, and triggered a small bout of panic. “I’ve learned that in class we’re presented with perfect data and in life, that’s not a thing,” she says.
Earning Black Belt certification requires successfully completing an improvement project and passing an exam. The distinction is one that both Kozma and Vemula once thought unreachable.
“I’ve met a couple of Black Belts, and they’ve always been really intimidating because they seemed like they had this world of knowledge that no one else could ever touch,” says Kozma, who expects to earn her master’s degree in engineering management this spring. “But doing the program, I’m becoming more comfortable. I’m applying everything I’ve learned in school in an actual work setting.”
Vemula concedes the program has influenced her attitude toward schoolwork. “I feel like I study with a little more zeal because I know I’m going to apply it later.”
She aims to reduce Sumitomo’s non-reusable scrap emitted throughout the tire-making process. The ultimate goal is to cut recycling costs.
“There’s not really an accurate way to measure that scrap,” says Vemula, who is pursuing a master’s degree in industrial and systems engineering. “So I’m working on a procedure to track the waste first, then the reasons for why it’s being scrapped, and subsequently how to reduce it.”
Meanwhile, Kozma is devising a process to reduce changeover time variation of Sumitomo’s newest automated machines. Lauria explains the machines are capable of producing the largest volume of daily output at the highest level of quality. Hence, their optimal operation is crucial.
As a first-time project supervisor, Lauria has new appreciation for Six Sigma’s structure and data’s critical role in making decisions. He also believes that sustainability — a typically elusive characteristic — is integral to success in manufacturing. UB’s program has shown him that it is possible.
“It’s really beneficial to the plant,” Lauria says of the program. “For every project I’ve observed and have been partially part of, there’s always been some value that’s come out of it, whether it’s information or some change of procedures.”