Throughout the challenging months of the COVID-19 pandemic, resourceful companies looked for ways to do more with less now more than ever before. Whether it’s trying to produce more with fewer staff, managing profit in the midst of increasing costs, or meeting an increased demand for product, many found NIU’s enthusiastic senior-level engineering students to be the answer to these very problems by sponsoring a senior design team.
Senior Design is a two-semester course at the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology (CEET) where a team of interdisciplinary engineering students applies what they have learned throughout their education as engineering majors. They form teams that develop prototypes for the creation or enhancement of a product, system, process, automation, algorithm, or smart technology, etc. At the program’s conclusion, the company sponsor retains the intellectual property and prototype that the team creates.
“We combine our expertise in engineering fields to improve productivity and profitability while providing our students with real-world learning experiences and preparing them for the engineering workforce,” said Donald Peterson, Ph.D., dean of CEET.
In the fall, teams select their projects and meet with their clients to gain a thorough understanding of the challenge, define and structure the project, and develop a formal project proposal with a budget and a timeline. Throughout the entire program, the teams meet regularly with their sponsor until the prototype/project is completed and then handed over to their clients.
“What surprised me most about the senior design challenge is that instead of getting a high-level research project back, we actually got a real work output that we were able to put into production,” said Carl Modesette, director of product engineering at UniCarriers Americas, Corp. of Marengo, Il., who has been a client of teams for the past several years. “Companies that get involved with NIU’s Senior Design Program stand to benefit in many ways.”
Wondering what those benefits might be? Here are five reasons how companies can benefit from becoming senior design team clients:
- Discover solutions to problems without using additional resources.
Client companies get access to a team that includes a mix of engineering disciplines including mechanical, electrical, biomedical, and mechatronics engineers; engineering technology engineers or industrial and systems engineers. Each team is assigned a faculty advisor and a teaching assisting to direct the students. Throughout the process, the team uses NIU’s state-of-the-art labs to work on the challenge.
In one example, Wahl Clipper Corporation of Sterling, Ill., was a team client in 2019. The team was led by David Todd, lead electronics engineer and Matt Bowers, electronics engineering manager for Wahl. The company manufactures hair clippers, trimmers, and shavers for consumers and professional barbers and stylists.
When asked about the benefits of senior design, Bowers said there are many, with the greatest being finding a solution to a challenge without dedicating resources.
“We wanted to understand how our products are used so we can engineer better products,” said Bowers.
Their challenge to the team was to find a way to efficiently collect information while the products are in use. The team developed hardware and software that sends data to an app on the user’s smartphone such as the temperature of the clipper, length of time used and the number of times it is turned on.
2. Increase efficiencies in daily operations.
A team of industrial and systems engineering students worked with client Nobelus located in Schaumburg Ill. The team improved product output by streamlining the company’s production processes. The team proposed several process improvements and facility layout changes to increase throughput. A capacity analysis tool was also developed to analyze “what-if” scenarios.
Chief Operating Officer Kurt Paquin of Nobelus said, “they were able to uncover and analyze key processes for us. This was something we were not staffed to do.”
The Nobelus team, in addition to the process improvements mentioned earlier also created a defect form to identify and seek refunds from suppliers for poor quality raw material, which was implement before the project was concluded and led to immediate savings for the company.
“The team was a tremendous help,” said Paquin. “The team helped us increase output significantly.”
3. Scout out fresh new talent.
Client companies work closely with their teams in weekly or bi-monthly meetings and get to know their team members’ abilities and work ethics well.
All three of the students on the Collins Aerospace team of Rockford were hired by the company after graduation. The company’s project was to find a more efficient way to track items on the aerospace manufacturer’s shop floor. The system they developed can accurately locate hundreds of items within feet of their actual position as they move through the flow in the plant.
“NIU is a great pipeline for employees,” said Chris Griffiths, executive director of program development for Collins Aerospace. “The quality of the students from NIU always continues to impress. As an alumnus of NIU, class of 1994, I have seen the investment in the CEET, which improves the quality of education of the students and prepares them for future success.”
Wahl Clipper recruited two engineers from the 2020 team, and in 2019 recruited an engineer who was continuing to NIU’s graduate school. The student held an internship with Wahl during his senior year and was the Wahl liaison for the 2020 team.
Like UniCarriers Americas, Collins Aerospace and Wahl Clipper have also been clients for several consecutive years.
4. Save money and enjoy a great return on investment.
Clients find that the program offers a significant return on investment. With a minimal investment of $10,000, the client gets the solution to a challenge that could potentially be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to the organization.
For example, in 2020 an engineering technology team devised a system to detect leaks in fluid pump components for MTH Pumps in Plano, Ill. The company’s existing system of testing took an operator between 15-20 minutes to set up and complete and relied on operator observation and potential errors. The team developed a scalable, modular solution that takes only 20 seconds to set up and proved to be more reliable because it uses air pressure sensors instead of human observation.
“Our system is safer, more accurate and faster,” said team member and engineering technology major Jacob Bostick. “We estimate it to cost half of what the current system costs.”
5. Help shape next-generation engineers.
By giving new engineers a chance to work on a real-world problem, students learn what it will be like to work on a project team for an employer. They gain comprehensive experience that reflects all aspects of engineering design and industry practice, including how professionals communicate ideas, how intellectual property impacts day-to-day engineering operations, and how ethics influences engineering decisions, explained Peterson.
“They hit the ground running at their employers,” he said. “Industry professionals who involve themselves in the Senior Design Program have the chance to truly engage students in a meaningful experience by bringing together the concepts of practical application and ultimately culminates in a solution for the company.”
“Nobelus gave us free rein to choose a direction which was a real challenge, and in the end, it was so rewarding,” said team member Patrick Wasilewski.
The options are limitless.
CEET is now accepting project proposals for the upcoming Senior Design academic year. Peterson indicated that the college will work with the company to find a challenge that will be mutually beneficial to the company and the students.
“NIU is a hidden gem in northern Illinois. I would encourage local industries to get involved with the CEET program at NIU,” said Collins Aerospace’s Griffiths.