February 27, 2008
Stanford's Product Realization Network: Producing real results
Stanford University engineering students know their field is more than mathematics and theory. Factory production linesengineering you can see and touchgive us bikes, cars, laptops, medical devices and much more. Now, a long-standing Stanford organization that combines engineering and business education has been revamped to teach students how to turn good ideas into real products and distribute them in the real world.
This group, the Product Realization Network (PRN), brings students together with industry experts and lets the sparks fly. Students learn what makes a factory run like clockwork, and what doesn't, as well as how to handle economic and marketing hurdles like a pro.
Stanford has been connecting students to production companies for a quarter-century through its Alliance for Innovative Manufacturing (AIM). This group, which promoted "academic research innovations in the field of manufacturing, and funneling that out to the industry," served companies like General Motors, Cisco Systems and Toyota well, said PRN Executive Director John Aney. But faculty members worried it didn't focus enough on students' needs.
When program leaders decided AIM needed to switch targets, "we met with about a hundred different people, including faculty and students from business and engineering, as well as industry leaders," Aney said. In May 2007, PRN was born. While historically AIM was focused on graduate students, PRN is gaining popularity among undergraduates as well. The PRN student members, typically engineering or business students, get an inside look at production from "faculty, staff and professionals passionate about how things are made," Aney said.
PRN members have the chance to tour factories and get a closer look than the Science Channel show How It's Made could ever provide. They've been to General Foundry in Hayward, where molten metal is poured into molds to make parts for medical devices. In November, students toured the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) auto plant in Fremont. They had a question-and-answer session with senior vice president of operations Ernesto Gonzales-Beltran.
"It's a great exchange of ideas and concepts," Gonzales-Beltran said. "The value is in seeing firsthand what it takes to manufacture a product. You can read about it, but it's not until you actually get to see it that you understand in full what it means." He says NUMMI benefits tooacademics keep the company updated on innovative university research. This intellectual symbiosis ties students to PRN industry partners like GM, Raytheon, Genentech, Toyota, Cisco Systems and Novellus, who, Aney said, make a "commitment to interactivity with students." PRN plans to have a number of mixers per quarter where members can talk to industry pros in a fun, informal setting.
At the heart of PRN are plenty of relevant courses, seminars and workshops. This winter, in Mechanical Engineering 396, Design and Manufacturing Forum, students are learning from industry partners why production plants cluster in certain areas, why Novellus settled down to make semiconductors in Northern California, and why the biotech company Genentech found a home here as well. ME 396 will get greener in the spring; it will cover sustainable, environmentally sound production.
The PRN's main academic offering is the PRN Certificate in Product Creation and Innovative Manufacturing. "The certificate shows that the student has understanding and background in manufacturing, so they can use this alongside their transcript when they look for a job," said Aney. Students must finish 12 to 18 coursework units with a 3.0 grade point average or better to earn the certificate.
Engineering and business students often cross into each other's territory. For example, a January workshop used a computer simulation to give engineering students a feel for overseeing a large number of people. PRN Faculty Director Jim Patell, a professor at the Graduate School of Business, set up the simulation to model medical operations at a refugee camp. "Scheduling patients for medical attention has many characteristics of scheduling jobs for manufacturing organizations," he said. "I teach business to engineers, and I think it is useful for everyone."
PRN students also have the chance to meet with mentorsretired or semi-retired product realization experts, Aney says. "That's a tremendous value to our studentsparticularly those who have some product ideas they want to develop and don't know what the next step will be."
Aney says it has been a productive year for the fledgling PRN. On May 19, faculty members, students and industry partners will hold a First Anniversary celebration. The public will have the chance to chat with them about how PRN itself has progressed from an idea to a realization. The event will be held on Monday, May 19, from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Bechtel Conference Center in Encina Hall. More details can be found at the PRN website, http://prn.stanford.edu.
Hayley Rutger is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.