Stories from ANU Reporter and ANU News
CECS Spotlight: On the buses
One of the nation's top young manufacturing engineers is sold on the idea of continuous improvement. Next stop: successGenerations of Play School presenters have left us in no doubt about the wheels on buses: they go round and round, round and round, round and round. But who would stop to think how it is the wheels perform those efficient rotations?
In a society that teems with technologies, it's easy to forget that everything from a humble bolt to an 86-seater Greyhound has been dreamed up, designed, refined and manufactured - with this process occurring perhaps many times over. One of the people who ensure that buses conform to the exacting standards set by the Play School song is Dr Peter Campbell.
Campbell is an Improvement Manager for Volgren Australia, the largest manufacturers of bus bodies in Australia. The ANU engineering and economics graduate was named 2007 Victorian Young Manufacturer of the Year for helping to dramatically increase productivity at Volgren's factories. At the company's Victorian plant, output has increased from 160 buses each year to more than 210. Leaps in production of up to 40 per cent have also been achieved at facilities in Queensland and Western Australia. Campbell says this is all a result of an effort to foster a "culture of improvement".
"I was surprised and honoured to be nominated for the award," Campbell says. "You don't expect to get recognition in manufacturing. I'm just doing my job.
"Manufacturing is pretty dirty, compared to clean room technology or pharmaceuticals. We have a huge emphasis here in being cleaner and more efficient. As we get better and better it gets cleaner and smarter. There's a perception out there that manufacturing is dirty, dumb and doomed. We're trying to make it clean, smart and environmentally sound."
A cleaner and smarter image for manufacturing will, it's hoped, result from an overhaul of the philosophies that underpin the industry. Campbell subscribes to the idea of 'lean manufacturing', which is entirely focussed on improving processes and reducing waste. This requires an engineer to take a step back from the frenzy and noise of the factory floor and consider the system of manufacturing in its entirety: from raw materials through to sales and consumption.
"The engineering course at ANU is a systems engineering course. It's very broad, and you get an overall picture of the multiple disciplines within engineering. That puts you in a position where you're able to picture things quite easily. When I was placed in a manufacturing environment, I'm looking at the overall flow and the business impact of the project and that's steered me away from really technical stuff where you're just trying to solve a highly specific problem."
This training was put to the test in 1999 when Campbell was offered a spot in the STAMP (Stamping Technology in Automotive Manufacturing Process) program. This collaboration between the Ford Motor Company, ANU and Deakin University in Victoria allows postgraduate students to undertake a research project while also gaining experience in a real-world engineering context: in this case, the Ford plant at Geelong. Tasked with improving production of body panels, Campbell's work led to a presentation for the Operations Manager of Robert Bosch, one of the largest technology manufacturing companies in the world. Campbell was hired by the global giant as a Lean Manufacturing Engineer, a job that took him to factories in Japan and Mexico. He credits these experiences with opening his eyes to the possibility of continuous improvements in manufacturing processes.
"There's almost no limit to how good you can become," Campbell says. "These big plants - it's phenomenal the efficiency with which they're able to add value to raw material and get it out the door as a finished project. You can stand in the factory, watch the parts coming in, and see them physically moving into the production process, and see them come out the other end as finished products, which are then shipped off to the stores. It can all happen in a matter of hours."
His head filled with dreams of ever-improving efficiencies, Campbell joined Volgren Australia in 2005. According to his citation from Business Victoria, he was charged with bringing about "improvements to all aspects of the business including production flow, cycle time, 5S [shorthand for waste elimination], visual management, workforce education and training, safety, quality and environment".
"I'm looking out for the big picture, but also helping to solve specific problems where they're impacting on the overall flow," Campbell explains, providing an example of how clever thinking and team work helped to solve an inefficiency in the manufacturing process.
"One of our employees, Kevin 'Spider' Smith reduced the cycle time in chassis production by more than 30 per cent over a six-month period.
"In the past all the chassis steelwork was built 'on-the-job' using a multitude of clamps, levels, straight edges, measurements and constant reference to engineering drawings. Spider stood on the shop floor and watched his best guy at work. He would walk backwards and forwards between the job and the drawing, checking dimensions, fetching steel, measuring, clamping, re-checking, re-clamping, re-measuring, etc.
"Spider recognised that most of this process was a waste. His team built jigs so that the steel modules could be built off-line, quickly, accurately and ergonomically, with minimal reference to drawings and with minimal need for measurement. This removed a lot of waste and significantly compressed the cycle time. Dropping completed modules onto the chassis enables us to do what was a 10-day chassis build, in six and half days and we have plans to go even faster."
Campbell stresses that all of his work is centred around teamwork and enabling others to conceive and carry out better ways of working.
"I act as a mentor. I encourage them to think the right way, and then they go and solve the problems and do the work. They come to me for advice and when they hit roadblocks, they call on me and either push it through management or solve specific issues that they haven't dealt with before.
"We train them as well. I might do the first issue with them, but then they get enough knowledge so they can apply that to other projects. I walk out there now and I see improvement projects happening that I didn't even know were being started. We've got the whole company, rather than just me, being involved in every single project." But isn't there a built-in obsolescence to what he does? Surely an Improvement Manager will eventually make himself redundant when a company is operating as efficiently as possible? On the contrary, says Campbell.
"There's no limit to improvement, especially with the current international environment. We're not the only ones making the improvement. Other countries are doing it as well."
So the spirit of competition in commerce, coupled with dreams about better processes, mean that even the wheels on the bus may one day be improved upon. Watch out Play School.