Virginia Tech Pallet Lab’s Lean Transformation

Lean Transformation Improves Efficiency of Virginia Tech Pallet and Container Testing Lab, Prepares Graduates for Industry 

Virginia Tech pallet lab

The William H. Sardo Jr. Pallet and Container Testing Laboratory is the most comprehensive pallet testing and research lab in the United States. Here, students can get real-world, hands-on experience in lean management techniques while preparing for careers dealing with packaging, pallets, and supply chain management. We recently caught up with Dr. Laszlo Horvath, Director at Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design (CPULD), Virginia Tech, to discuss the laboratory’s recent lean transformation. 

“It is an interesting story,” Horvath begins candidly. “University laboratories are not known for efficiency. We do great work, but honestly, people go into the lab and start working on their projects in an ad hoc manner. It’s not like an industrial process where everything is organized, with standard operating procedures.”

When he took over as director, the lab had long thrived on the time-honored approach of native intelligence. Highly experienced lab managers knew precisely where everything was – like a veteran mechanic who knows the location of each tool in his hopelessly cluttered shop. For someone new entering the laboratory, however, finding things could be daunting. Horvath says that he was initially frustrated, which culminated in a new approach to organizing and managing the lab.

Things have changed for the better. “We moved a lot of equipment around to create manufacturing cells to support testing,” he continues. “We created standardized operating procedures for all significant activities, including energy control procedures and safety procedures.” New students now require seven hours of training before they can enter the lab.

Virginia Tech pallet lab

The organization of the lab includes standard lean features such as color-coding. Tools and their corresponding locations on the wall pegboard are color-matched with shadow markings to facilitate the return of equipment to the correct place. “We make every single process, every single part of the lab visual,” Horvath continues, “so we don’t have drawers, for example, to hide things.” Finding things is more manageable when everything is visible. CPULD utilizes kanban systems and kaizen rapid improvement events.

Another lean exercise involved utilizing digital data collection. Students now use iPads to collect data, which are synced to the server to eliminate data loss. CHEP, the global leader in pallet rental, was impressed to the extent that it replicated the data collection process for its innovation center in Orlando, Florida.

Center for Unit Load Design

Training students in a lean mindset is critical. He notes that many companies fail – one study suggested that 80% of companies are unsuccessful in completing a lean transformation. It can be challenging to sustain. For example, the managers leading the initiative may get promoted or leave, resulting in stalled momentum.  

“Sometimes, you can see that the system is falling apart,” Horvath observes. “There are companies that we used to highlight as lean examples, and we don’t use them anymore because they are no longer lean.”

Organizing the facility is only the first step. To sustain a lean culture, training and ongoing management are critical. “We train students,” Horvath states. “We build this lean mentality in them, and we train for the culture.” Students are exposed to lean for four years, so when they leave, it is part of their DNA. “When they go into a facility,” he adds, “they need to have this type of structure.”

Shortcomings in Horvath’s educational journey have informed his approach. “I worked on industrial projects during my Ph. D. research, but I never gained management experience,” he says. “I always felt that was a problem.” At Virginia Tech, he wanted his students to gain management acumen. 

Graduate students manage the day-to-day processes, while undergrads act as technicians in performing the testing projects. “The system works really well,” he states. Involving the undergraduates in the lean program has proven to be highly successful. They love being able to “put their own touches” to the laboratory. 

“When our graduates enter the workforce,” Horvath states, “they don’t just have extensive knowledge on packaging engineering and design processes.”” With their lean training, they are ready to integrate into lean corporate settings. Or if a lean culture isn’t present, they start pushing for lean documentation. “It is quite unique for a university packaging program to focus on lean,” he observes.

Horvath tells the story of one student who went to a cosmetics firm for a job interview. She said to the employer in a straightforward way that their laboratory had a “way to go” to be more organized. While the move might have backfired, it didn’t. She was hired. He observes that companies have a feeling about whether or not their operations are at the desired level of performance. They are interested in hiring employees who can move them in the right direction.

“So that’s what we want to achieve with the students,” Horvath concludes. “We want them to gain experience. And, if we say that we are a state of the art level laboratory doing state of the art research, then we should look like one.” Thanks to its lean transformation, the William H. Sardo Jr. Pallet and Container Testing Laboratory is precisely that.