LORDSTOWN - The stark yellow glow of fluorescent bulbs above five of the six inspection bays inside the General Motors Assembly Plant bore a stark contrast to the sixth bay that shone like the light of day.
Below new LED lights, audit manager Brenda Coleman conducted her routine examination of a just-built Chevrolet Cruze. After working 22 years at the Lordstown plant, Coleman of Warren knows the importance of turning out cars with a perfect finish. It's her team's job to inspect a random sampling of the newly assembled Cruzes every day in the plant's "audit" bays, checking for even the slightest imperfections inside and out.
So when General Motors brought on a group of Youngstown State University engineering students to help redesign lighting in the audit area, she was thrilled.
Youngstown State University engineering students, from left, Jim White of Pittsburgh; David Berry of Liberty; Kenneth Burton of Canfield; and Brian Alls of Warren, stand behind a newly built Chevy Cruze in the light of LED lighting fixtures installed recently in the Lordstown General Motors Assembly Plant. The lights were designed by YSU students as part of a STEM project for the “audit” area of the plant.
Photo by R. Michael Semple
"When I review the car, I have to have a certain light level," Coleman said. "This would be a tremendous improvement as far as intensifying the light as you are looking at a car for a defect."
Even more excited are the four junior and senior engineering students who worked the past several months inside the plant and at YSU labs trying to build a solution to a real-world problem.
"As electrical engineers we learn a lot about the light particles, and there's a lot of different attributes from them," said senior electrical engineering student Jim White from Pittsburgh.
He stood in the newly lit bay with the three others, all beaming from their accomplishments and their involvement in the sprawling plant.
Kenneth Burton, a junior electrical engineering student from Canfield expressed his excitement at working in the plant that he has driven by so many times.
"It was interesting to see how big it was in here. It's like a roller coaster for automobiles," Burton said as the line of partially built Cruzes rolled nearby on conveyer belts through the plant. "This was a great experience."
The students were continuing a project that began last year with another group of YSU students. They worked closely with their GM mentor Mayon Maxey and adviser Salvatore Pansino, and were in frequent contact with the lighting supplier, Appalachian Lighting.
One of the challenges was designing lighting that can simulate exterior sunlight, be adjustable with a hand-held dimmer while remaining uniform over the entire vehicle, all while ensuring they met lighting level specifications set by General Motors for its audit bays.
"They worked with us and gave us the equipment that was needed," said Brian Alls, a junior mechanical engineering major from Warren. Alls was the only mechanical engineering student on the project, but it wasn't his first experience with GM, noting he already has completed an internship at GM in Warren, Mich.
This program uniting YSU students with projects inside the plant originated from plant manager Robert Parcell. Parcell cited the success of a similar program at the GM plant in Bowling Green, Ky., and instituted it when he came to Lordstown in 2010.
''We have had them as interns for many, many years, but we started about two years ago focusing on projects,'' Parcell said. ''We have been able to tap the university for some of our young leaders."
In fact, the plant hired 20 YSU graduates just this year for salaried positions at the plant.
"This gives the students some hands-on experience to supplement their classroom work. If you think about it, we have got the biggest lab in the state, probably," Parcell said with a smile, referring to the plant floor.
Parcell said, in the long run, he can see applications for the students' LED project throughout the plant and perhaps throughout the company.
"We are putting it in one stall and could expand it to five other stalls," Parcell said. "We have got to get it approved through corporate. They have to make a few modifications and get it approved and if that approval happens, it could (be used at other GM facilities)."
Of course it doesn't hurt that the LED lighting, or light-emitting diode, is so much more energy efficient than standard fluorescent bulbs that the students estimate their work could save the Lordstown plant up to $160,000 in energy costs over the course of 20 years.
One of the modifications still being overcome involves a varying level of light in the audit stall.
''There's light and dark spots throughout because of spacing. We have to have uniformed lighting," said David Berry, a junior electrical engineering major from Liberty. But it's overcoming challenges like this that gives the students their real-world experience.
''Practical world experience is extremely valuable for our students,'' said Martin Abraham, dean of YSU's STEM College, for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. "In this particular case it's an opportunity for them to work in the manufacturing plant, do some engineering work, follow it through and see it in operation. Those types of opportunities put our students a step ahead.''
Abraham said talks have already begun on a new project for next year, possibly dealing with a method to keep bolts from falling into the machinery.
''These are interesting projects for the students because they are real engineering projects. They are real problems the company has," he said. "The relationship with GM has been phenomenal."