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Manufacturing Success Stories

Elementary School Learns Lean & Builds Airplanes

By Kathie Mahoney, Events Coordinator, MassMEP

“One of the most noteworthy accomplishments in keeping the price of Ford products low is the gradual shortening of the production cycle. The longer an article is in the process of manufacture and the more it is moved about, the greater is its ultimate cost.
—Henry Ford, 1926 

Henry Ford is considered one of the founding fathers of Lean Principals. In March, the 458 students of R.E. Shaw Elementary School in Millbury, Mass., learned about the principles of Lean — process improvement, the value of hard work and attention to detail, and how to build a proper airplane.

The MassMEP kicked off R.E. Shaw Elementary School Manufacturing Week with a morning program that consisted of a presentation on the history of manufacturing, including some history on Millbury, and a simulation that implemented the principals of Lean manufacturing techniques to very excited fourth, fifth, and sixth graders at the school.

Part of the presentation highlighted the history of manufacturing and the pre-industrial era of 1890 where a craftsman created one item at a time and developed a specialized skill. This was compared with the mass production revolution of 1920 and the Ford assembly line, then with Lean principals of 1980. Then the fun began…the kids got to build and fly paper airplanes in school.

After the presentation, each class broke out into six groups and each group divided in half. During the first round, each student built an airplane from start to finish; the planes were tested for quality of flight, e.g. whether they were able to fly to a net that was set 10 feet away from the testing area. The students were also measured on the number of planes each group produced.

The second round of students was structured as an assembly line. Each student was given one fold to complete, then they were to move the paper to their classmate. The classmate was to complete one more fold and pass it on, and so on through the assembly line process. The students were again measured by the number of planes they completed and the number that flew to the net.

At the end of each round, we compared the number of planes made the first time when the students built a plane from start to finish and the number of planes that were produced during the “assembly process.” For each class, the number of planes produced slightly increased with the assembly line, while the number of planes that flew to the net significantly increased.

The students learned that when they had one job and did it very well, the airplanes preformed better. They also learned how to work like a team and that their teammates were depending on them to successfully make their folds so the planes would fly properly.

The MEP had the opportunity to educate some elementary students on the opportunities available to them within the manufacturing industry as they think about future careers.

To bring a Lean manufacturing seminar to your area, contact Kathie Mahoney at (508) 831-7020.


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