Some Auburn University students have taken to huddling regularly in a campus basement to play with Legos.

Engineering students are using the Lego Lab in the Shelby building to simulate the daily process at car manufacturing plants around the world.

“I think we’ve got something pretty special for our students,” said Tom Devall, the professor who runs the lab. “And from what we’ve seen, we’ve never seen anything similar to this at any other university in the country.”

Zach Arrington, a former student of Devall’s who now works for Cirrus Aircraft in Duluth, Minn., said the lab helped him prepare for the real thing.

“The Lego Lab was the best training tool that I experienced in college,” Arrington said. “Very realistic to real-world manufacturing and shows you the cause and effect of applying different principles, lean methodology, how those change manufacturing processes in the real world.”

Saurabh Ghonasgi, a lead quality engineer for Brose in Grant, Ala., completed Devall’s class and lab, then served as his teaching assistant the following year before joining the private sector.

“When (students) come into the manufacturing environment, at least they have that concept drilled into their heads of what works and what does not work,” Ghonasgi said.

Devall said he has trained supervisors in assembly and parts plants in the past.

“Supervisors come in and they typically don’t really know how to start or how to begin or what’s important,” Devall said. “They have a college degree, but they have no experience in these environments.”

Students at Auburn leave the school already understanding how to put a 200-piece car together in 60 seconds after taking the lab. This mimics the process that Deval faced at automotive factories every day for 35 years before his arrival at Auburn.

Devall and his students started out eight years ago, building the lab from scratch in assembly-line fashion, students passing the cars off to one another. Eventually a conveyor belt was added on, resembling official factories.

“So you can imagine over eight years all the things we were able to add to this,” Devall said. “So it was pretty stripped down in the beginning, but still effective, but it just became more complex and more complex and more complex.

“To the point to where it, in some cases, is more complex than a lot of local manufacturers. And certainly has better systems than a lot of local manufacturers.”

Automakers rely upon Devall and his students. Honda had a full day of employee training in the lab and has since grown its partnership with Auburn.

“We want to create an environment where people come in and they can learn from what we’re doing and take it back to their own manufacturing facility,” Devall said. “And so the theory behind that is, why should we be sending our students out to factories so that they can learn what manufacturing is about?”

This also give Devall’s students work opportunities and valuable contacts in the field. And after graduation, students come back to Devall to let him know how well-prepared they were for their new jobs.

“The Lego Lab actually prepared me to be able to have a much better knowledge of what the lean concepts are because I was able to apply them practically, (rather) than people over here who have been working like 10, 15 years in the industry because all of them have heard of the term ‘production systems ‘and what it should be like, but they don’t necessarily understand how that actually works,” Ghonasgi said.

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