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Focus on the Workforce: MfgDay Success: Inside Anthrax Vaccine Lab

Meghan Shea-Keenan







By Meghan Shea-Keenan
Workforce Development Program Analyst

Oct. 4 was the second annual National Manufacturing Day. SME had promoted the national event to all our members and encouraged them not only to participate but to hold events and tours of their own on this day. I looked at the MfgDay website at their events listing for Michigan to see what was available.

I found a tour and presentation at Emergent BioSolutions in Lansing.  I decided to bring some students with me to get their feedback on the event as well. I took three of my cousins, all with different perspectives. One is a 22-year-old economics major interested in business. Another is a 19-year-old bio-chem major, unsure of what the future will be, thinking about medicine or laboratory research. And the other is a 17-year-old high school senior without a defined career path with interest in communications, most likely advertising.  I was very interested in getting their reactions to the information that would be presented. 

What we knew about this company before arriving was that they produce the anthrax vaccine, BioThrax, for the US government. As we were walking up to the building, with terrifying security fences that would surely gore you were you to try to climb them, my cousins decided that we could be entering the lab of a comic book villain with the name “Emergent BioSolutions.”
This increased the excitement for the day.

As we went through security, giving our photo IDs in exchange for a visitor’s badge, there was instantly a feeling of importance walking though the building. The day began with a presentation about the company and its history. Even though Emergent was founded in 1998, this manufacturing plant began in 1937 and was originally a state of Michigan laboratory until 1998 when it was turned over to the private sector.

Next, there was a presentation on anthrax itself. We learned about the disease and the history of using anthrax as a biological weapon. I thought this was a very effective combination of presentations. Besides my cousins, there were three student groups there, one from a Lansing high school, one from Lansing Community College and one from MSU.

During the presentation, I began thinking about the last anthrax-related threat I could remember.  It was when anthrax was being mailed in 2001. Although this wasn’t that long ago, it was long enough that the students in attendance wouldn’t remember. So learning about the worldwide threat of anthrax gave a real purpose to what was being manufactured there.

The presentations were followed by the Lansing Mayor standing up and welcoming us to National Manufacturing Day. He spoke about manufacturing and its importance to Lansing, Michigan, and the country. 

We were broken up into smaller groups of ten for the tour portion of the day. This was nice because it was easier for the group to ask questions along the way.  We got to enter a few buildings, and had to use the safety goggles and ear protection provided in some areas. Our tour guide was the Director of Manufacturing for Emergent.

We went to a building that was full of labs, each with its own purpose. At the end of this building’s explanation, we were shown a board that showed their progress toward making this a Lean lab. They were working on 5S. Some questions were asked about the effectiveness of this effort, if it was worth it or just extra work, or if it felt annoying to worry about such small details. They told us about how they started working on this lean effort this year and have already seen positive outcomes. One example was a small change that saved them $40,000 minimum annually.

The group wondered: If one small change saved $40,000, what could 10 small changes do?

The tour was followed by two 25-minutes sessions. They had four prepared: Emergent’s Manufacturing Process, BioThrax Process Improvement, Continuous Improvement Projects, and Career Panel.
Even though the US government, an organizer of National Manufacturing Day, was shut down, community members, students and leaders turned out in droves for the event nationwide. Here, a presentation is given to attendees at Emergent BioSolutions in Lansing.
I had the students pick what they were interested in attending. They chose Emergent’s Manufacturing Process first. This was probably most interesting to the economics major since they talked about the many steps they have to go through to ensure quality control. Afterward, he made a comment about how so many steps cuts into a profit margin. As we talked about it, it became clearer how important quality control really is from a business standpoint.  If these measures aren’t taken along the way, you could end up with a lot of product that you can’t sell because it’s no good. What does that do to a profit margin? It was interesting to see how thought processes change as one comes in contact with an actual business that needs to stay running based on the quality of its product in addition to the theories of economics. 

The second session the students chose was the career panel. We got lucky during this session, as most of the students in attendance went to the career panel first, so we were the only group present during the second session. There were four scientists from Emergent there to speak with us and answer our questions. They were at different points in their career and held different functions, from a first-year hire to lead scientist.

Having this session last was great. My cousins had had the whole day to take in what Emergent was all about, consider the many roles that went into manufacturing their product, and think about how their interests might align with manufacturing. The panel was very encouraging to them all. It would be easy to focus on the bio-chem major and just talk with her about her goals. And while the panel did answer all of her questions, they also engaged the other two students and asked what they were interested in and how they might fit within Emergent, other kinds of manufacturing or something else that they might not have expected. For example, when one of my cousins was asked what she was interested in pursuing, she responded that it didn’t have anything to do with this kind of stuff. But the panel responded by saying that not everyone who worked at Emergent was a scientist.  They talked about one person in particular at Emergent who had a job closest to her advertising interest. After the career panel, we found her to ask her some questions about her job, how she liked working in this field, if she saw herself here when she was studying communications in college. She, too, was very nice and encouraging.

The big take-aways from this experience were:  Emergent spent a lot of time preparing for this event and it showed.  Everyone felt very welcome, engaged, and interested. As we left, my cousins were talking to each other about the day and I heard something that made me excited: “This was a lot cooler than I thought it was going to be.” 

I felt like the day was a success, especially when a high school senior who previously didn’t know anything about manufacturing except stereotypes left with a little bit more understanding of what manufacturing possibilities are and thought it was cool. This, of course, was just the thought of one student from one event.  There were 832 events listed on The reach is growing. ME

This article was first published in the November 2013 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  Click here for PDF

Published Date : 11/1/2013

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