Engineers help student designers build products of the future

MIT Lincoln Laboratory staff provide design and fabrication guidance

At MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Greg Cappiello, an optical engineer in the Rapid Prototyping Group, works on engineering solutions for systems such as a detector that discriminates biological agents in ambient air. He supports programs geared to providing advanced technologies for military applications.

In the past four years, he has also been involved in building such diverse things as a device that creates labels in Braille, a standalone unit that washes and then fills reusable water bottles, a walker with a built-in motorized elevator seat to assist those who have fallen, and a clothes-compacting suitcase. No, he is not a home-workshop inventor; rather, he is one of 12 technical staff members at Lincoln Laboratory who volunteered in 2011 as mentors to MIT's Product Engineering Processes course (ME 2.009). From September to December, the mentors spent three hours a week at the Pappalardo Nanoengineering Laboratory on the MIT campus, guiding the development of innovations imagined, designed, and built by undergraduate engineering students.

Mentors for the MIT engineering courseLincoln Laboratory technical staff who mentored student teams from MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering product development course are (seated, left to right) Matthew Johnson, Jesse Linnell, and Eric Statz; (standing, left to right) Benjamin Lapointe, Greg Cappiello, Loren Wood, David Tardiff, Michael Stern, Allyn Dullighan, and John Norstrom. Missing from the photograph are Joseph Bari, Daniel Kettler, and Scott VanBroekhoven.

"The course gives a much more rounded view of product development," says Cappiello. "Students have to brainstorm ideas, mock up their ideas to try to iron out the key technical risks, make a prototype of their product, and then give a presentation similar to what one would deliver to potential investors in the product."

David Tardiff of the Laboratory's Mechanical Engineering Group is a mentor with the team developing a power-assisted wheelchair. He sees the team experience as one of the important lessons: "For many students, this is their first time working with a team of reasonable size, and much of what they're being taught is how to do that, in parallel with the product development issues regarding ideas and development and market research and salesmanship." 

The course designed and taught by Prof. David Wallace has been a staple at MIT since 1995. About 120 seniors, primarily mechanical engineering majors, take the course that is offered only in the fall semester. Students, grouped into teams of 14 to 16, handle not only the engineering aspects of product development but also the budget management, schedule oversight, workplace maintenance and safety, presentation materials, and intrateam communication required to turn the team's idea into a product with a marketing campaign. The students have ample support for their work; three teaching assistants, ten lab instructors, five lab technicians, five communications advisors, a course librarian, and 48 volunteer mentors from different companies or labs help the teams realize their products.

Role of the mentors
"The mentors provide expertise and specific domain knowledge," says Wallace. "Initially, they are like Obi-Wan, listening and asking probing questions. Toward the latter part of the course, they are more execution-focused, helping students figure out how to get the work done."

The teams look to the mentors for insight into the practical challenges of product design. Matthew Johnson of the Tactical Defense Systems Group sees the mentors' role as helping students create a product that can be used in the real world. "If a concept is great on paper but tolerances are so tight that it costs ten times what it should, it'll never be a successful product. Identifying how a user can inadvertently break a product helps students see they need to try to design in protection from such damage."

Mentors have no role in grading the students. They are resources to whom the students can freely voice problems and mistakes they encounter. "We try not to intrude on their projects," says Cappiello, "but help them understand the implications of their decisions."

During the semester, students work toward well-defined milestones. The process begins with teams' brainstorming ideas and then presenting their best options at critiques. From there, the teams go on to critical design reviews, assembly, technical reviews, and the final presentation of the product. The "finals" are polished presentations that explain and "sell" the product. The audience for the final presentations may exceed 600 people, encompassing the entire class, all instructors, course sponsors, guests from product development firms, and the MIT community at large. Because of the buzz generated by the presentations over the years, in 2010, the finals were moved to the Kresge Auditorium to accommodate all the interested spectators.

The rewards of mentoring are personal and professional.
There's the obvious satisfaction of helping prospective engineers grow. "The course really broadens the students' horizons. They build 95% of their product by themselves. This lets them build up their confidence," says Cappiello. "It's always amazing to see how much progress is made in the final week between an often rough work in progress and the final polished presentation product," says Tardiff.

Loren Wood of the Laboratory's Surveillance Systems Group, after three years as a mentor, was invited by Wallace to serve as an instructor for a team in the 2011 course. "Since I had really enjoyed working with the students, I said yes. As an instructor, I led three-hour lab sessions, gave advice, reviewed student notebooks, and participated in the grading process."

One word that recurs in mentors' descriptions of their experience with ME 2.009 is fun. "Working with fresh ideas and relatively unjaded people is fun and refreshing," says Tardiff. For Johnson, "The creative energy is very fun to be immersed in. The course is organized such that literally hundreds of ideas are generated and discussed in the first month alone."

Scott VanBroekhoven, also of the Rapid Prototyping Group, is working with a team to develop a vending machine that dispenses inexpensive bicycle helmets; the machine would be an adjunct service to urban bike sharing systems such as Boston's New Balance Hubway. VanBroekhoven, an avid bicyclist, brings that enthusiasm as well as design and fabrication knowledge to the team. "The Wednesday evenings in the Pappalardo lab are an enjoyable diversion," he says.

Mentors also feel they gain new skills. "We learn how to brainstorm and think out of the box," says Cappiello. "I've learned newer ways of collaborating, such as using wikis and blogs, as well as some tips on presentation skills."

'I have learned a great deal from the students and from the course, specifically all of the effort it takes to bring an idea from the drawing board to a physical product," says first-time mentor Ben Lapointe, also of the Tactical Defense Systems Group.

Laboratory staff members typically hear about the course from others who have volunteered as mentors. Johnson recalls thinking the opportunity to mentor sounded like a "worthwhile investment of time." Lincoln Laboratory agrees. Management encourages staff to participate, and the Laboratory is one of the course sponsors, providing funding that goes toward the $6500 budget each team gets to build their prototype. In a sense, the mentors are ambassadors of Lincoln Laboratory, introducing students to a potential employer. Also mentoring teams are Joseph Bari, Daniel Kettler, and Michael Stern of the Rapid Prototyping Group; Allyn Dullighan and John Norstrom of the Tactical Defense Systems Group; Eric Statz of the Active Optical Systems Group; and Jesse Linnell of the Advanced System Concepts Group.

On December 12, the teams showcased their products at the final event. In the audience, 12 Lincoln Laboratory mentors applauded the dedication of their teams. "They have proven to have a very strong work ethic," says Johnson of his team. "I often check my email in the morning and see that conversation on the project was ongoing throughout the night. To date, I’ve received over 500 emails from one lab section alone, most of them with lots of well-thought-out content."

Videos of the 2011 product presentations will be posted to the course's website under the Gallery tab.

Posted February 2012

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