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Local Businesses Gain Savings/Safety Through UT Arlington Research

November 19, 2008

An interdisciplinary team of engineering researchers at The University of Texas at Arlington is helping local businesses improve their operations, thanks to a $250,000 grant awarded to the Arlington Chamber of Commerce’s Center for a Competitive Workforce by the Texas Workforce Commission. Allan Crawford, the Center’s Director, will serve as the project manager, in partnership with UTA’s College of Engineering, overseeing three diverse technology research and demonstration projects designed to increase regional competitiveness in logistics and distribution: Vehicle painting for the General Motors Assembly Plant, package tracking for American Airlines and runway operations safety for the DFW International Airport.

The General Motors Arlington Assembly Plant paints approximately 1,000 vehicles a day. It costs GM, on average, $15 every time paint spray heads are flushed and a new color is applied. To reduce costs and downtime, the plant manager and her team try to schedule as many vehicles of the same color as they can through the assembly process. Even though 50 to 100 vehicles may be grouped at the beginning of the assembly line process, they usually become separated as they are diverted to separate lines due to individual vehicle equipment orders. By the time they arrive at the paint booth, as few as five vehicles of the same color may remain grouped together.

Computer Science & Engineering’s Dr. Gergely Zaruba and Industrial Engineering’s Dr. Jay Rosenberger and their students are creating conveyor system simulations that optimize the splitting and merging, resulting in a set of guidelines that may permit GM to regroup as many as 18 vehicles of the same color before painting, more than doubling the normal output. This could save GM as much as $500,000 a year at each assembly plant. The guidelines will also establish worker training policies related to materials handling technologies.

American Airlines needed a good way to keep track of high-priority, same-day-arrival shipments. These might consist of human organs, animals or any object of high value to the sender and recipient. American wanted to be able to monitor the point-to-point handling of these packages and, since these packages were routed as regular baggage and not air freight, it also wanted to prevent packages being targeted to the wrong destination.

The current system of hand-held scanners and in-vehicle computers is very old and would be costly to modify. Industrial & Manufacturing Systems Engineering Professor John Priest came up with a cost-effective solution utilizing cell phone and global positioning technologies. This system will dramatically improve package tracking, especially during off-schedule operations.

DFW International Airport executives wanted to reduce or eliminate occasions where personnel unfamiliar with the layout of the airport would accidently drive vehicles onto active runways, taxiways and/or emergency roads. The airport currently uses a variety of methods – signs, lighting, escorts – to keep contractors, new employees and others out of restricted areas, but these are not always effective.

Computer Science & Engineering Senior Lecturer Dr. David Levine teamed with Dr. John Priest to investigate systems that interface with and improve the existing methods. These include GPS tracking, laser rangefinders coupled with cameras and image processing, and off-the-shelf systems currently deployed at other airports. An additional benefit of the laser rangefinder method is that it can also detect wildlife, alerting operations staff of any intruders to monitored areas.

Together, these projects will enable employers to improve their operations and motivate them to innovate while providing a framework to identify employee skills needed in the future. For example, these technical positions would be needed to implement and maintain the systems described in the three projects: Topographic GIS engineer, site survey technician, software engineer, camera and laser maintenance technician, network engineer, industrial work flow/process engineer, electrician.