Mackenzie Barnett, a project manager in Fleet Readiness Center East’s (FRCE) Infrastructure Investment Branch, reviews shop floor layouts in the depot’s cable repair shop. Barnett was part of a team of North Carolina State University students who conducted an assessment of FRCE’s avionics and electrical work spaces as a senior design capstone project. Capstone projects allow students to gain real-world experience solving problems in the sponsoring company, while allowing the company to see how potential employees perform on the job. Barnett was hired soon after completing the capstone project.

FRCE hosts college project to assess space realignment

A team of senior industrial engineering students from North Carolina State University (NCSU) recently put their skills to the test in a project designed to improve efficiency and workflow while preparing for future workload in some areas at Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE).

The four students visited FRCE as part of their senior design capstone project, which is a comprehensive group project that requires students to apply the techniques and methodologies they have learned in their undergraduate studies. As a result of their efforts at FRCE, the depot has been able to consider reallocating space in preparation for future workload, which could represent significant cost avoidance over building new facilities.

FRCE Infrastructure Investment Branch Head Erik Lewis, himself an NCSU alumnus, said he was confident that a team of NCSU students could bring fresh ideas to solve some space-related challenges at the facility. These students are the first industrial engineering majors FRCE has sponsored, although students from other engineering disciplines have conducted their capstone projects on FRCE’s aircraft lines or components shops. 

“In walking around the plant, many of our shops have the same footprint they had when I started 20 years ago, and we’re installing new equipment to support the F-35,” Lewis said. “I have to consider, is the workload mix the same? Do the shops still need all the space, or do they need more? Those are the sort of questions that would make a good capstone project.”

Lewis contacted the university’s Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering to inquire about how FRCE could host a capstone project. He was referred to the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), which provides funding and support for innovative defense-related research projects, like capstone projects.

“The National Security Innovation Network provides solutions to national security problems and works to bring nontraditional actors into the defense arena,” said Alison Beatty, NSIN Digital Engagement Principal. “Capstones are a great way to show students that they can help solve national security problems already with the skills that they’re learning in their undergraduate programs.”

Lewis wrote a project proposal for the student team to solve, involving real-world space allocation challenges at FRCE. Once NSIN approved funding for the project, four NCSU students selected Lewis’ proposal as their capstone project.

“FRCE has three avionics and electronics shops that are spread over three buildings with five shop locations,” Lewis said. “We were looking for the most efficient way to consolidate the shops to free up workspace and reduce travel time. By framing this as a capstone project, the students get some real-world, problem-solving experience, and FRCE gets a fresh analytical perspective on the problem.”

Team members made three trips and frequent phone calls to FRCE from Raleigh to evaluate the spaces they were tasked with consolidating. They collected data on available space, present and future workload, current processes and other variables to develop a proposal for what the realigned shops could look like. Team member Mackenzie Barnett said FRCE’s mission as a repair facility created some additional challenges for the team in terms of data collection and modeling a future state.

“Repair is wildly different from manufacturing. You don’t know what’s coming through the doors, necessarily, before it gets there,” Barnett said. “So it makes planning and forecasting less precise. We could give a best guess, but there’s no guarantee like in a manufacturing environment, where everything’s going to be the same every day.”

As a result of their research and analysis of the data, the team recommended bringing the five avionics and electronics shops under one roof. This would mean less travel between buildings for employees and a more efficient workflow within and between the shops. FRCE Components Division Director Lenny Domitrovits said the students’ work sparked some creative brainstorming as to how the division could realign space for future workload needs.

“The capstone project did open our eyes to some other possibilities that we might not have considered,” Domitrovits said. “Consolidating the shops would create a more efficient production environment than the current layout. It’s certainly a good idea to have all the people, equipment and test benches in close proximity.”

Lewis said that reimagining how existing space could be used more efficiently might reduce the need for some construction projects, which, in turn, could save money for the government.

“The recommended space for the avionics and electronics shops is about 27,000 square feet and, with current construction costs, creating a building of that size would run upwards of $30 million,” Lewis said. “By the team showing that the current space was underutilized and that realignment is a viable option, a significant cost avoidance has been created for FRC East.”

The four team members have now graduated, and all have found jobs after their capstone experiences, including Barnett, who now works at FRCE. A new team of NCSU industrial engineering students is wrapping up FRCE’s second senior design project.

According to Kanton Reynolds, director of undergraduate programs for NCSU’s Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, participating in a capstone project allows students to gain real life experience in the workplace, while employers can see potential employees in action.

“The capstone project offers the unique aspect of relevant work experience while still having the support of faculty and staff to guide students in the development, design and implementation of solutions that can be put into practice by the sponsoring company,” Reynolds said. “This provides substantial value to employers as well as a pipeline of potential new hires that already understand the organization’s dynamics.”

FRCE is North Carolina’s largest maintenance, repair, overhaul and technical services provider, with more than 4,000 civilian, military and contract workers. Its annual revenue exceeds $1 billion. The depot provides service to the fleet while functioning as an integral part of the greater U.S. Navy; Naval Air Systems Command; and Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers.

North Carolina State University (NCSU) industrial engineering student Dudley Maness, center, explains his team’s senior design capstone project at the Fall 2022 Engineering Design Day, held by the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at NCSU. Team member Spencer Buzzard, left, and Erik Lewis, Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE) Infrastructure Investment Branch Head, observe the presentation. The four-member team created a proposal to realign several avionics and electronics shops at FRCE as their senior capstone design project, which they presented to professors and students on Engineering Design Day. (Courtesy photo)

North Carolina State University industrial engineering students, from left, Cameron Loy, Mackenzie Barnett, Dudley Maness, and Spencer Buzzard recently completed a plan to consolidate several electronics and avionics shops at Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE) as part of their senior design capstone project. The team presented their project at the Fall 2022 Engineering Design Day, held by the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at NCSU. Capstone projects provide students with real-world experience solving problems in the host company, while project sponsors can see first-hand how potential employees perform in the workplace. (Courtesy photo)

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