The Charleston plant assembles mid-body fuselages for the entire 787 "Dreamliner" program. Boeing has 870 orders for the aircraft, so Chen was tasked with finding ways to make the assembly work more efficient, faster and of higher quality.
“As a person who loves airplanes, mechanical systems and building things, it was fun to crawl inside of the aircraft and watch as it came together,” he says. “While the 787’s engineering design is impressive, I was curious about how the manufacturing system organizes thousands of people, parts and processes to build such a complex product in a short time.”
The construction process reminded Chen of his previous work as a Navy submariner. “The 787 is a lot like a submarine: It’s a pressure vessel crammed with equipment and people, designed to operate in unforgiving environments,” he says. “In the shipyard, we had trouble staying on schedule and prioritizing work when problems came up during the repair process. After talking with the assemblers and production managers, I realized that they had many of the same dynamic scheduling challenges. If one part of the assembly gets delayed, it can cause major schedule ripples that are difficult to recover from, if not addressed quickly. The challenge is to identify these critical jobs and prioritize them.”
Based on what he learned in his mechanical assemblies class, Chen set out with a small team of industrial engineers to formalize the mid-body build sequence. “This enabled us to generate feasible and optimized build schedules for 2,300 jobs,” he says. “The job network also shows each team how their work connects with other teams’ work throughout the entire build process.”
As a visual person who loves to draw, Chen experimented with different ways to use the job network to convey production status to managers and planners.
“The managers were overloaded with numerical metrics and pages of job lists. It was tedious to figure out where to focus resources,” Chen says. “I arrived at a visually intuitive format that struck a chord with assemblers, support engineers and managers. The plant builds 15 planes at a time, so it’s very important to get everyone on the floor talking with each other,” Chen says.
He then worked with a team of programmers to develop an online tool based on this format and using the job networks that his team created. The visual control system will be displayed on wide-screen TVs on the floor so everyone will know what is going on at any given moment. The color-coded schedule will help keep the pacing of the work on schedule, and enable different groups to coordinate to prioritize problems as they arise.
“In retrospect, the technical solution was relatively straightforward. Getting people to buy in and support our approach was much more difficult and ultimately rewarding. The Boeing managers and executives deserve a lot of credit for being open to new solutions and implementing our idea quickly,” Chen notes.
While in South Carolina, Chen worked closely with Briana Johnson, LGO ’08, and Jeremy Stewart, LGO ’10 — two of eight LGO alumni who work at the Charleston location.
Chen is now back on campus, and is working on his thesis and is enjoying reconnecting with his Sloan and LGO classmates. He says he has learned much from them, and was impressed to see what his classmates had accomplished on their internships during a knowledge-sharing event in February.
When Chen completes the LGO program in June, he will work in operations for Philips Healthcare in Andover, Mass. He also looks forward to his first flight on a 787 in the near future.