Industrial Engineering Alum Wins Research Award for Graduate Thesis

May 6, 2021

By Holly Hinson
Kyle O'Brien

Kyle O’Brien

When Speed School alumnus and industrial engineer Kyle O’Brien was working on his master’s thesis, he became intrigued with the idea of applying the business concept of just-in-time to additive manufacturing (AM). His innovative ideas and solid graduate research have been honored with the 2021 Graduate Research Award by the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineering (IISE) and judged by a committee comprising members of the Council of Industrial Engineering Academic Department Heads. Only three Graduate Research awards are given annually, judged on the criteria of excellence in research and presentation of the results.

O’Brien, who graduated with his Master’s in IE in May 2020, said his thesis was based on a proposal related to the additive manufacturing supply chain of spare parts in the aerospace industry. ”What we wanted to look at unique to this project was how that compares to what we are currently doing with spare parts,” he said.

“Spare parts for commercial planes are produced traditionally with a large amount of inventory and are held in large distribution centers for up to 25 years because some aircraft are still being used that long,” O’Brien explained. “They need to have spare parts available and ready for emergency part failure and for routine maintenance. My question is what if we produced those parts with additive manufacturing (AM) which would allow the flexibility for parts on demand?” It was the first time investigating this in this industry,” he said.

Dr. Lihui Bai and Dr. Li Yang, both Industrial Engineering professors, were not just advisors on O’Brien’s thesis project, they were true collaborators, said O’Brien.  “Combining the two industries – Bai comes from an operations research background and knows supply chain optimization,” said O’Brien. “Dr. Yang focuses on the part production and the additive manufacturing characteristics, bringing insight and real practical knowledge about creating spare parts from research out of the Additive Manufacturing lab.”

Yang said that O’Brien’s thesis research stood out for the novelty and significance of the subject. “This has not been on the radar in the AM community,” he said. But even more importantly, he said one of the biggest reasons he considers the project such a success is the key integration role O’Brien played on the research team. “We collaborated through the thesis process and were able to work on the model that plays out best for all of us,” he said. “On my end, I could point my fingers at problems and directions in AM that were interesting and Dr. Bai would provide suggestions to approach the supply chain problem from a theoretical way. Kyle salvaged our random thoughts and put it together as part of our teamwork strategy, and he handled it very well.”

As an alum, O’Brien said Speed School prepared him well for his master’s research, and for his career path.

“Speed School does a great job as a program partnering with local companies,” he said. “I was able to go into facilities and watch their manufacturing processes as well as leading projects with customers, like in Capstone. That project work has been most valuable, and the customer interface is really important too, especially now with consulting,” he said. “It’s what I do every single day.”

Technical skills such as advanced EXCEL, coding and particularly simulations have also been instrumental to O’Brien’s career path. “Customers want to validate things with simulations,” he said. “We have powerful software now that provides 3-D visuals so they can see what the design will look like before implementation,” he said. In addition, O’Brien said the collaborative nature of Speed School helps engineers develop soft skills, too. “It’s always good to have a coder or someone good at simulations on your team, but if they can’t explain their work well, it means a drop in your ability to get effective results for your customer. They do that well at Speed School, working as teams on projects.”

All this has been a great foundation for his current role at Bastian Solutions, a global material handling systems integrator, headquartered in Indianapolis. “We partner with groups that create automatic technology, and put our software in place in these facilities to have all these technologies communicate with each other,” he said. “But we have the design process first, and my role is the initial drafting of design proposals for customers. I utilize historic data from customer order profiles such as a typical picking task, or if a manufacturer, a typical part production schedule. From there, we do what IEs do, time and motion studies, simulations, inventory slotting to determine where products should be placed in their facility,” he explained. “We do a lot of e-commerce and it is fun to see commercials of companies we work for, knowing we’re the ones making sure that part gets to someone’s front door delivered on time,” said O’Brien.

O’Brien said he hopes his thesis research will open up and explore a new avenue of looking at AM application in the industry. “It’s a good starting point and my hope is that it initiated some interest at UofL to further research this.”

Yang described O’Brien’s contribution in historical terms. “It’s like landing in a new continent not knowing what we are looking for and we roamed around and found something interesting. Kyle was the first explorer.”