Doctoral student applies smart maintenance techniques to industry


By Mia Hollie

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For Kai-Wen Tien, doctoral candidate in the Penn State College of Engineering’s Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering (IME), a conversation with his former professor about manufacturing in his home country inspired his passion for engineering.

During Tien’s undergraduate education at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, his professor and mentor told him of a persistent issue in the Taiwanese manufacturing industry: engineering problem-solving is often outsourced when a factory issue arises, forcing the manufacturers to halt production.

After earning his master’s degree in industrial engineering from North Carolina State University in 2014, Tien realized that IME’s industrial engineering doctoral program could give him the opportunity to further investigate these issues.

“When people ask me why I chose to pursue a doctoral degree, I usually just say that the opportunity arose and I took it,” Tien said. “But deep inside, my true intention for getting this degree was to explore the problem that my professor mentioned years ago.”

Many of Tien’s projects come from the Service Enterprise Engineering Initiative (SEE 360), which introduces students to opportunities for engineering in labor-intensive service industries. SEE 360 also creates new engineering solutions that optimize services by partnering with businesses and allowing students to develop solutions to their problems.

“I like Penn State for its educational environment and the freedom that students have in their research,” Tien said. “Not too many students have the experiences we have because of the program’s [SEE 360] projects.”

Improving campus tech

Power outages can spell disaster for facilities like a hospital where health professionals need reliable energy sources to care for patients. To avoid catastrophe, many places use uninterrupted power supply (UPS) systems. A UPS enables facilities to protect important data from corrupting due to a power outage or an improper shutdown.

“Just like when your laptop breaks down, the small battery devices installed into the computer will be able to prevent damage to the laptop’s components,” Tien said. “But when it comes to data centers, there are a lot of devices in one area. If the power goes out, there is a higher chance of damage occurring.”

Unlike a backup generator, a UPS can only provide short-term power that is insufficient for continuing normal business functions. Its purpose is to provide the systems connected to it with enough power to protect important data and functions until power is restored to the facility. This means that routine inspections are essential for a UPS to work if a power outage or spike does occur.

“If the UPS battery fails, the entire system could fail,” Tien said.

As part of a project, Tien and fellow industrial engineering (IE) doctoral students Toyosi Ademujimi and Shin Hyunjong sought to investigate the system in which UPS batteries are replaced around the University Park campus. The team worked with Penn State’s Information Technology Services (ITS) to figure out the best policy to replace these batteries.

The team analyzed several sources of data, like inventory and maintenance logs provided by ITS. They also used the provided data to estimate the average lifespan of the batteries.

“It was new for me to work in information technology services,” Tien said. “It was a learning opportunity not only for me, but for my group members, too.”

The team found that refining the maintenance request system used by maintenance workers could lead to better management of the UPS systems.

As the system is now, maintenance workers are given limited options for how they can describe a maintenance fulfillment, which includes noting if a battery needs to be replaced soon.

“Many of the current maintenance processes rely on the know-how of technicians,” Hyunjong said. “What we are trying to discover is a smart way to maintain all network devices to allow the data center to work smarter and efficiently.”

From project to thesis

Their work to optimize workforce practices in ITS ties closely to each student’s individual doctoral theses.

“The project is a group effort, but Dr. Prabhu has assured that we each take on tasks that relate to our own research,” Ademujimi said.

Tien’s research focuses on how to achieve smart manufacturing through smart maintenance. Smart maintenance leverages technology, such as big data and the Internet of Things, to ensure that the machines required for production operate efficiently. The system allows factories to bypass human error to decrease machine downtime and increase productivity.

Implementing this technology in factories can also help management select appropriate policy and identify areas for improvement.

“For workers in any field, it is easy to forget certain phenomena,” Tien said. “We not only have to look at where these workers can improve, but also who is already familiar with what, and assign accordingly.”

Tien applies his research to the service industry by partnering with local businesses and manufacturers in Pennsylvania. In 2018, Tien worked closely with other IE graduate students in collaboration with Walmart to determine how the company could improve processes at the Military Appreciation Tailgate.

Looking ahead

Although he is currently social distancing due to the pandemic, Tien still focuses his energy on his research projects and thesis.

“Being at home definitely makes coordinating with others difficult, but the one benefit is I have more time now to write,” Tien said.

Following the completion of his doctoral degree, Tien plans to remain in academia as a faculty member. He hopes to continue to explore the problem presented to him by his mentor throughout his career.

“Working as a faculty member at a university suits my personality,” Tien said. “Bettering industry starts with giving engineers the proper education to do so.”

SEE 360, as part of the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, aims to engineer the 21st-century economy by educating students on how they can find and solve service industry problems. The initiative offers a minor degree, works on developing teaching resources such as textbooks and case studies and introduces students to opportunities for engineering in labor-intensive service industries by partnering with businesses to optimize service. For more information, visit


Share this story:

facebook linked in twitter email


College of Engineering Media Relations