Engineering students helping a small business boost production of Italian waffle cookies
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In the summer of 2003, businessman Stan Kourakos bought a family-run business in Norristown that for nearly forty years has been making and selling pizzelles, thin waffle-shaped Italian cookies that many people think of as a holiday treat.
Kourakos believes that pizzelles are a treat people can enjoy year-round, and he wants to boost production and sales. Helping him figure out ways to do that this year was a group of Bucknell University engineering students who exhaustively studied the company's production process and came up with several innovative ideas for boosting its output.
"The students identified the problems immediately," says Kourakos, owner of Original Little Pepi's. "I was impressed by how they went about achieving their goals. They were focused on what the issue was, and the issue was to increase the production, increase the efficiency."
Right now, Kourakos's business has two production lines that together produce about 7,200 pizzelles an hour. Kourakos could increase the output by turning up the temperature on the baking irons and baking the cookies faster.
But there's a significant bottleneck to increasing production — although the process is partly automated, the finished pizzelles are removed from the irons by hand. "We could produce more," says Kourakos, "but because we take the cookies off the irons manually, we can only go as fast as a person can work."
To help ease this bottleneck, the students designed and built a prototype of an ingenious vacuum conveyor system. It uses a powerful vacuum to pull air through a metal grid, lifting the finished pizzelle off the baking iron and transferring it to a conveyor belt. The students also recommended using a special non-stick coating on the irons to make removal and cleanup much easier, and designed an electronic regulating system to keep the temperatures of the baking irons constant.
The students did the work as part of a senior design project in mechanical engineering supervised by Keith Buffinton, professor of mechanical engineering and an expert in robotics.
The vacuum conveyor system "works very well," Buffinton said during one of the project's sessions. "This is a great student project, and has given them the opportunity to learn as they go."
The Bucknell-Little Pepi's collaboration began after Kourakos attended a business seminar in Philadelphia and learned of Bucknell's Small Business Development Center (SBDC); Kourakos subsequently got in touch with the SBDC, which referred him to Buffinton.
In about three months, the current location of Little Pepi's is going to become a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) parking area, and so Kourakos is focusing right now on moving his business to an industrial park setting in Hatfield, Pa. He has been very impressed by the students' work and hopes to incorporate some of their recommendations into his new setup.
When the students ran into an obstacle, Kourakos recalled, they realized that you don't have to "go through the wall, try to go around it. They seemed to know how to flow. I was very impressed. If they reached a point where they couldn't continue further, they didn't just try to fix it, they would also look in other directions."
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