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For an advanced manufacturing system to function efficiently, all workers must know how to identify problems within their departments and develop solutions for them. Today's employers expect technicians entering the workplace to possess "soft skills." These include the ability to analyze a problem logically and formulate a solution, but also the ability to work in teams and to effectively communicate with others.
This lesson uses real-world scenarios to encourage critical thinking and improve problem-solving skills. The lesson begins with an invitation to explore the many different areas and career paths within advanced manufacturing. Following a brief small-group discussion on how critical thinking and problem solving are used in advanced manufacturing fields, students review a handout that lays out some guidelines for how to approach problem solving. Students watch a video about a manufacturing supervisor, and then begin to relate problem solving to other workplace scenarios. Then, through two short activities, they have a chance to demonstrate their ability to think critically. An optional extension activity has students apply what they've learned by researching an industry of their choice and assessing the problems that are likely to come up. Students prepare a report that includes their analysis of the problems, probable causes, and a possible solution to one of them. They then present their report to the rest of the class.
1. Explain to the class that the ability to think critically is an important attribute for workers in advanced manufacturing environments. Critical thinking is fundamental to strong problem-solving skills. In a manufacturing facility, both the equipment technicians and the operators need to know how to identify a problem and develop a solution to that problem. For example, if there is a production problem with a piece of equipment, the operator needs to be able to explain exactly what is happening—or not happening—with that segment of production. The equipment technician can then use this information to troubleshoot and fix the equipment.
2. Distribute the Problem-Solving Guidelines (PDF), and take a few minutes to review it together. The main point to convey is that there are processes that workers/managers can use to guide them. Explain to students that they will refer to these guidelines throughout the lesson.
3. Show students the Biomanufacturing Supervisor Video. It demonstrates how the advanced manufacturing process works at a medical device maker, how the process can be improved to ensure product quality, and how production volume is tracked.
4. After showing the video, ask the class how the supervisor featured in the video learns about problems in this manufacturing environment. Then, using the Problem-Solving Guidelines handout, have students explain how the supervisor might solve a quality problem or a shortage of inventory. For example, the supervisor might learn through a shift start-up meeting that certain equipment is malfunctioning, or daily production reports might show that volume is down.
5. Using that information, the supervisor, working with a problem-solving team, will need to obtain as much information about the problem from anyone involved in that task. Be sure to emphasize the importance of asking questions at this point in the process. (With few exceptions, Yes/No questions are usually considered "weak." "Strong" questions demand additional information.) The supervisor may then be able to identify probable causes and develop possible solutions. These might involve repairing or replacing the equipment, or ordering new raw materials so that the plant can ramp up volume. In the workplace, the supervisor may perform this cycle of gathering information—identifying probable causes and possible solutions—many times in an effort to narrow the probable causes down to the root cause.
6. Select one of the following problem-solving scenarios to be completed as a class, or divide the class into two groups and assign one scenario to each group.
Scenario A: Processing Wheat for Food
Note: For this activity, there is no right or wrong answer; rather, it allows students to demonstrate their ability to think critically, which is fundamental to problem solving.
Scenario B: Closed-Loop Systems
Students will apply the Problem-Solving Guidelines to determine the root cause of an advanced manufacturing problem, and then propose solutions to resolve it. First, ask them to select an industry they'd be interested in investigating. Then have them research the industry and how its products are made. Next, have them identify potential problems that could occur in the manufacturing process. Finally, they should prepare a written report that includes a summary of the industry, the potential problems they identified, and the process they would follow to solve one of those problems.
Divide the class into two groups. Have one group (the "troubleshooting team") present to another group (their "managers") a summary of their analysis of one scenario's problem. (If your class did both scenarios, the group that worked on Scenario A will be the troubleshooting team for the presentation about Scenario A, and the rest of the class will be the managers. Reverse roles when it's time to review Scenario B.) Follow the presentation with a question-and-answer session, during which the managers could ask questions about the process that led the troubleshooting team to come up with their solution.