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Q&A with Dr. Li Lin: facility layout

As professor and director of graduate studies in UB’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, Dr. Li Lin specializes in facility layout – in addition to the research areas of computer simulation, workflow analysis and improvement, and efficient deliveries of healthcare services. Through various TCIE projects, he has assisted companies with determining the best possible layout arrangements.

Below, Dr. Lin explains how he and his students work to address a company’s operational needs.

Question: What is the general process you undertake when devising layout alternatives?
Dr. Lin: Just like working on any industrial project, the first step is to fully understand the company’s business needs in the long term. Layouts have their “life cycle,” which depends on the company’s strategic plans for business growth, and should not only meet their short-term objectives, but also potential needs in at least eight to ten years. For these time horizons, volumes of major types of products and their process routings should be analyzed so all equipment and processes in the new layout will be positioned in the right places to facilitate good operational efficiency.

Question: How do you involve the company in the process?
Dr. Lin: The key people in the company actually participate in all steps of the layout design. We need to rely on their knowledge of the company’s business and production processes; we certainly don’t have a “magic wand” to do it alone. After all, the designed layout will be the company’s new “home” and all the features should already be understood before moving in. Involving the company, from top management and staff, to supervisors and operators, has another advantage. Not only do we build their new home together, but the process itself transfers the know-how of using industrial engineering principles for improving their operations in the long run.

Question: What’s the difference between a good layout and bad layout, in regard to the impact they have?
Dr. Lin: A good layout has a clear design principle aligned with the company’s strategic plans, with flexibility to adapt to future changes. Its desirable features are easy to see and appreciate, with measurable improvement in operational efficiency. Meanwhile, it factors in all practical constraints — such as property limitations, like being land-locked — and, very importantly, promotes new ways of management at a higher level. So developing a good layout is a good learning exercise for the company, and provides a prime opportunity to shed some old habits and start anew.

Question: What types of factors do you consider when determining an ideal layout (i.e. product and cost analysis, etc.)?
Dr. Lin: Frankly, there is no “ideal” layout, because resources are limited and there is always a cost concern. The key is to achieve the best use of space and facility for the highest efficiency. Factors to be considered include product types and volumes; their respective expected growth in the next five, eight and ten years; advances of technology; resource and manpower requirements; equipment needs of utilities and environmental impact; building constraints (e.g., column spacing, ceiling height, etc.); material handling needs (e.g., overhead crane); human factors and ergonomics (e.g., work safety); energy consumption; HVAC demands, etc. Although there are so many factors, the upmost importance is to understand the company’s real needs and resource limitation in finding a good solution that the company will truly believe in.

Question: Do you find that companies are surprised by any aspect(s), in particular, that you examine when identifying a layout that supports efficient operations?
Dr. Lin: If there is one thing that could “surprise” the industry, it would be our rigorous approach of using science and engineering principles in the analysis and design of a layout. The amount of data we collect and the subsequent analysis does surprise the company somewhat in the beginning. They sometimes wonder why we would even need such details. However, as we progress and explain why we need these data and how we analyze them to eventually lead to a new layout design, companies appreciate it. Having gained a good understanding of the process and how to take advantage of the layout to achieve production efficiency in the future, I find that they embrace the new layout with great confidence.

Question: How are UB students involved in the projects that you complete for companies?
Dr. Lin: Graduate students are a very important and integral part of our industrial projects. These are excellent opportunities for students to apply theories learned in classes to real-world problems. They are dealing with real data: collecting it and analyzing it properly. They are also communicating directly with industrial practitioners, who have different responsibilities and come from different disciplines, to gather the information we need. I encourage students to develop independent abilities in completing project tasks by making well-informed decisions. This helps prepare them for their future careers.

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