Last week I continued my education in the world of manufacturing as I joined the students in my MIT program on their annual Plant Trek. Our program is supported by 26 global companies who all have a stake in developing our students into uniquely qualified business leaders on the operational side. As part of their 24-month MBA and engineering program, during their first year all the students spend two weeks in January on this trek across North America to visit factories and offices of our program’s partner companies. The students get an amazing entree into the real challenges these companies face, and the companies get to give their best impression to the students who might come do their internship on site or work full-time for the companies.
This year the students started off in Seattle, visiting the Boeing wide-body factory that is the largest structure under one roof in the world, and also visiting an Amazon fulfillment center that uses Kiva robots to go through the aisles of products and “pick” them for human operators to put into boxes for shipment. (I got to see Boeing a few years ago and saw a different Amazon FC outside LA last year).
As the students traveled by bus from Seattle to Portland, I flew in from Boston to rendezvous with them and got to see a bit of the city. I was delighted to visit a couple of iconic Portland places, including the square-block Powell’s Books where I loved getting lost in the aisles, and a punk rock themed pizza place across from Powell’s where the Vegan Angel of Doom slice was probably the best use of “chreeze” I’ve yet found. Not that I recommend chreeze to anyone, mind you.
The 50 LGO students and a few faculty (me included) toured the Nike HQ campus outside Portland the next day. The campus itself and all the employees who work there are a very powerful advertisement for the Nike brand and lifestyle: imagine a Zen retreat with a double shot of spirited workouts happening at all times throughout the day. The Nike corporate culture also puts a premium on effective communications: our Nike colleagues presented the LGO group with a series of highly professional get-pumped videos to illustrate everything from the brand to the company’s plans for “Manufacturing Revolution.” We also got a chance to visit the company’s In-House Manufacturing site nearby where the Nike Air airbags (mini air-filled plastic pillows) are made in order to be close to the design process on HQ campus and maintain tight control over this important intellectual property. We were happy to hear about the impact that our students and graduates have made at Nike as they look to keep their global supply chain efficient during a period of growth and change. As part of selling the idea of working at Nike and living in Portland, we also saw a video produced by the local travel organization, though I learned later that the Nike folks considered showing this classic clip from the pilot episode of Portlandia that illustrates the more hipster-fantasy version of Portland life. Pierced or not I was struck almost physically by how nice and mellow people were, even in the TSA line at the airport.
We flew down to San Francisco next, where on our descent one of the LGO students who came to MIT from the Coast Guard pointed out his former ship stationed at Coast Guard Island in the East Bay estuary. Our first stop here was at the corporate campus of SanDisk, which you probably know of as the company that makes the flash memory in your cameras. One of the points their Senior VP of Operations (an LGO graduate) made in addressing the group was how their technology is now driving much more than consumer electronics, with a big focus on getting into the server business. SanDisk showed off their Silicon Valley campus and their headquarters R&D facilities to the group, though our students have already made a big impact at their main production facility located in Shanghai.
The next day we got to visit AB Sciex, an operating company of our partner Danaher Corporation. Danaher acquires companies in areas including medical devices, scientific and test and measurement instruments, and drives operational improvements from the corporate level while maintaining the companies as independent entities with their own brands. AB Sciex produces high-end instrumentation like mass spectrometers. Their technical staff were very happy to receive our group and shared some of the ways their work impacts daily life, for example in monitoring the presence of toxins or other man-made substances in drinking water and agricultural products. It was also interesting to hear about the experience of being in this acquired company in terms of relating to Danaher. The visit offered important perspective to our students considering possible careers in which they might move from one operating company to another as developing managers.
All this while Boston went through an Arctic cold front. It’s good to get out and experience the world of manufacturing, or what I called my funny road back to manufacturing from my somewhat opposite career as a poet and teacher.