Workforce Development: SAAVing Manufacturing

An Auburn University-based center is a problem solving hub for the auto industry in virtual space and real life

A little-known organization is quietly, and virtually, incubating in a cozy college town in South Alabama and quickly gaining momentum in bringing solutions to the automotive industry. Still basically in its infancy, the Southern Alliance for Advanced Vehicle (SAAV) Manufacturing Center, began just a couple of years ago but hopes to make an indelible mark on process improvement in known industry brands.

Greg Harris (third from right) says Honda has several projects working with Auburn University students. Photo credit: Auburn University

SAAV (it’s pronounced, “SAVE”) is a public-private partnership designed to deliver a trained workforce, anticipate and intercept potential problems in the industry and ensure a thriving, productive environment for automotive in the south. The organization is spearheaded by Greg Harris, Ph.D., an associate professor of mathematics and statistics who arrived at Auburn University in June 2016 after leaving the U.S. Army civilian ranks. By that fall, SAAV was a going enterprise.

“I came to Auburn to teach and took over the effort to create SAAV,” Harris says. “It had been going on for about a year and a half or so before I got here, mainly because the people that were here were trying to do it in their spare time, and you really don’t have a lot of spare time to create something like that.”

- Sponsor -

Harris immediately made it a priority to get the center up and running, working on real industry problems in what he terms a “virtual center” rather than a lab or university.

With Auburn University faculty members who work in the automotive industry, there’s a depth of knowledge that allows SAAV to place graduate students in year-long internships in the industry, learning in a “real world” environment with the safety net of support of faculty members on campus, when needed. The model places students in a position to work out problems firsthand and enables them to work on a graduate thesis with factual data rather than a fictional scenario. It’s a win-win.

“The company gets a true benefit out of it because they’re fixing a problem, improving productivity, improving quality, improving lead-time,” Harris says. “So both of us are getting the best out of all of this.”

Gregory Harris, Ph.D. Photo credit: Auburn University

While Auburn University is a major player, the endeavor began with the idea of starting a National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Research Center, including the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Auburn University, and Clemson University.  Initially, the logistics didn’t work out for multiple colleges, but Auburn was committed to the project and pushed on without submitting for the proposed NSF/IUCRC designation.

Currently, the intent is to manage SAAV, which offers memberships, the same way a cooperative would have been run so that a future endeavor will have detailed statistics and a progress report. Already, a research team at UAH has agreed to run a portion of the center with the same protocol as a National Science Foundation organization and is actively pursuing memberships and projects.

Of the eight projects SAAV has taken on to date, three have been completed and five are in the works. “And the companies just are ecstatic about … the types of problems that are being solved,” Harris says.

Through word of mouth and networking, SAAV’s Auburn team also has five members of industry on board, including Honda, Borbet, Brose, Arkal and University Instruments, a New York-based company that saw the benefit in being part of this Alabama organization.

Honda, of course, is an OEM, while Borbet is a supplier, making wheels for Honda and Mercedes. Brose manufacturers seat frames and internal systems, and Arkal is involved in plastic ejection molding for automotive applications.

“We have faculty members that are utilizing the center to help expand research and solve problems in the automotive industry,” Harris says. “That’s just a pretty neat process because, at any given time; we’ll have three or four faculty member-supporting projects.”

Students are proving to be valuable in working with these members, and word is spreading about how their talents benefit the auto industry. When Honda joined, SAAV had a small-scale project with the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) lab in Auburn. Honda reaped some benefit from that effort, although not exactly what the company had hoped for. Still, from that effort, one Auburn graduate student went to work in a Honda paint and assembly area and has proven a tremendous asset, from finding issues and identifying problems to putting together flows, Harris says. That’s led to SAAV planning simulations for the company and setting up to relay an entire assembly area with them.

Honda also is beginning to work with students in senior design for Auburn’s undergraduate industrial systems engineering department. When Harris asked whether Honda would like to use a student for smaller projects that are not typically funded by the company, Honda was quick to accept. Honda is kicking off five new projects on the production floor, working with Auburn students who spend three days a week on the efforts.

“We’ll have about 30 students up there at different times throughout the semester working with their engineers and their production guys on true issues in the Honda plant,” Harris says. “Typically, they have some idea of what the problem is and what the approach should be to solve it.  But we go about it in a very structured manner.  We use the Six Sigma DMAIC process for evaluating problems.”

The team works through the data-driven cycle of phases – Define, Measure, Analyze,

Auburn students going through the SAAV program learn how to build cars in a real world environment. Photo credit: Auburn University.

Improve and Control – to ultimately stabilize business processes and designs. After defining the problem, the students come up with an element of measurability, which is crucial in establishing a benefit.

“How are we going to assess it?” Harris says. “How are we going to figure out if we’ve made process improvement or not in the analyze phase? And then in the implementation phase, they go in and actually make the change. And then you figure out in the last one what kind of controls are you going to put in place to make sure that this stays in place.

“So we teach them a very structured problem-solving approach.  By using a problem-solving approach like that, we typically find that most of the time the problem wasn’t exactly what they thought it was, but … it was probably one of the great symptoms of what the problem was.”

Once the students reach the analyze and implement phase, in which the actual change will take place, they work with the sponsors at the plant to reach the best solution, Harris explains. In that way, it’s a brainstorming session among students and industry pros.

According to Harris, “One of the benefits of this consortium is that when you sign up in the membership, you’ve got a project going on in your area, in your plant. Yet every other member has a project going on also. You get to see what the other teams are doing and what kind of problems they’re solving, and we get some synergy.

“And they may be very different parts of the industry that are working on this, but they see a similar problem and they can go back and implement that because we share all the information.”

For example, one team worked with a company with a 50 percent scrap rate that impacted the bottom line. The students spent a year working on the problem and measuring the quality performance of the operation, ultimately reducing the scrap rate to close to 20 percent and saving the company time and material and improving the financial results.

One of the most significant successes to date has been with Brose, a German company responsible for technology in doors and liftgates, adjustment systems for front and rear seats and electric motors and drives. Brose took a process in managing continuous improvement that was taught in a SAAV lab and adopted it for Brose’s Tuscaloosa plant. The business also published the method as a best practice for its worldwide corporation and now is using the procedure in all 83 of its plants.  Brose employs more than 2,000 people in its U.S. operations with strategic locations in Michigan, Illinois, South Carolina, Alabama, and California.

In fewer than 18 months since its inception, SAAV is making the industry impact that was its goal. But the center is not stopping there.

“We’re still standing the organization up,” Harris says. “We had our first industry consortium meeting, and we elected a chair and a vice chair. So we’re still getting our feet up under us, but we’ve taken the position that the projects are the primary focus.”

This story originally appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 print edition of Southern Automotive Alliance magazine

Stay updated!

Get the latest news and insights into the automotive industry delivered right to your inbox