Farris, J., Choudhuri, S., Jack, H., “A Project Based Approach to Teaching Product Design and Innovation”, ASME International Congress 2007, November 2007, Seattle, WA.
A majority of students in engineering programs will graduate and take positions in industry where they will manage projects. In preparation for professional duty ABET requires that the students have some sort of capstone experience. However, it is rare for a student to reach their capstone project without having have some other project experience first. There is a tremendous opportunity to build the project management experience throughout the curriculum. In support of this philosophy a model has been developed for project management that is used from the freshman to senior years of the program with an ever expanding emphasis.
As expected, lower level students begin with carefully constrained problems, and tightly managed timelines. As they move to the junior year they begin to do projects for outside sponsors and develop intellectual property. Both of these demand a higher level of care in how projects are conducted. By the senior year students do their capstone projects for local companies. These projects require that the companies be satisfied. The materials for these projects typically costs up to $50,000. The final project results must be approved by the sponsor and usually end up on a production line or in a test laboratory.
Projects are common in most engineering schools as a way to go beyond homework assignments. Students benefit greatly by being able to apply theory at a greater depth than normal in any single course. By the nature of any course based curriculum, projects are normally contained within a single course. This is somewhat disjointed from engineering practice where engineers will work on multidisciplinary teams on less constrained/ focused problems. As a result students are often unprepared to deal with many realities of practice once they graduate or move on to graduate school. Moreover, in industry almost all design- development projects are constrained to be on-time-within- budget.
The traditional elements of project management include proposals, progress reports, budgets, Gantt charts, drawings, theoretical calculations, purchase tracking, building, testing, signoffs/qualifications, final reports, and personnel evaluations. Most of these topics are self evident, and can be taught with lectures and tutorial materials. But, when they are used in conjunction with project work they become reinforced. From a pedagogical perspective the major lessons we must teach the students are listed below.
At our university  projects are used throughout the curriculum. This supports our mission (and ABET accreditation) to support the needs of regional industry. The ultimate outcome of the project experience is the senior project where students design and build major pieces of equipment for local companies. To prepare students to work on these multidisciplinary teams projects are introduced from the freshman year on using carefully structured project design methodologies. This evolves until the senior year when the senior level students are working at the level of project engineers in industry.
Students are shown how to successfully manage a project using industrially accepted practices. Some of the philosophical principles of managing the projects are i) define a set of goals, ii) track the progress of the work, iii) apply technical knowledge to solve problems, and, iv) utilize professional skills. The goals for the project are set with regular activities and milestones, as listed below. Each of the following items focuses on the production of a ‘deliverable’ item or major milestone.
Students normally have previous knowledge of technical topics, but are unsure how to apply it to problems found in large projects. The following elements are stressed as essential technical components of projects.
Theoretical Calculations - Design concepts should normally be verified for adequacy, such as factor of safety calculations or system simulations. In advanced system designs calculations may be needed to select parameters.
The professional skills listed below are reinforced throughout the project. The methodology requires students to make sound technical decisions, instead of ‘rushing to build’. The outcome should be that the needs of the client/customer are satisfied. People skills are required to ensure that students behave as professionals, placing the project work ahead of their own interests.
Table 1 shows the basic, minimally expected, ‘skills’ used when teaching project management. These are related to the relative ability based upon the year in the program. Clearly freshman projects must have a smaller scope and be more carefully constrained. As students progress in the program the projects become larger and less constrained. In these cases students are taught to use the project management tools to help guide them through.
Project teams are selected for the design task, primarily to have complimentary technical abilities, but also to balance personality types. Technical abilities are assessed using self evaluations. Personality types are assessed using formal tools, with peer evaluations, or with faculty knowledge of individual students. Ideally each team is designed with one leader and complimentary personalities. However, occasionally a team may be formed to encourage students to mature. Whenever possible close friends are not placed on the same team.
Working in a team does reduce individual productivity somewhat, so teams are normally overstaffed by up to 50%. Once formed, teams are encouraged to divide tasks so that they may work in parallel towards a common goal. Some of the basic teamwork rules are listed below, reinforcing professional conduct with peers.
The careful process of selecting teams reduces the number of personality problems on the teams but they still occur on occasion. Minor personality problems, such as laziness, may passively hurt a team. They are evident through the peer evaluations, and can be dealt with early in the project by the instructor working directly with the team. If the problems persist the final grade of a student may be penalized. A firing mechanism can be used for extreme cases where a student is proactively harming a team.
A sample project timeline for a semester is given below. The use of a formal design proposal stresses that design work must occur before anything is ordered or built. When this is not done students often rush to build something and then try to justify their results with calculations. Needless to say this results in inferior designs. Formal testing is used during the semester to allow assessment of the design, and to allow time for iterations. When this is not done students will frequently complete construction hours before the project is due, with no testing or verification. Using formal testing commonly results in 100% success rates for the final design.
Written reports are used throughout the project to document decisions and track the progress. There are various approaches to the content of the design proposal and the final report, but in all cases the technical content is kept unique, for example as appendices summarized in the body of the report. Rough drafts of the design proposal and final report are reviewed, with assigned grades, to provide feedback to students.
Conceptual Designs - These document alternate designs using methods such as sketches, electrical schematics, block diagrams, calculations and flowcharts. Design matrices (or similar techniques) should be used to select designs.
Progress Reports - These are typically due once each week once a project has been approved. The required elements often include updated Gantt charts, budgets, design issues, fabrication issues, purchasing, and testing.
Design Proposal - A formal design proposal is required before building can begin. The reports include elements such as a cover page, a table of contents, three view/isometric/assembly drawings, a bill of materials, system block diagrams, circuit schematics, motion profiles, detailed budget, a weight inventory, calculations (e.g. stress), equations of motion, simulations, and flowcharts.
Final Report - The final report describes the design and the outcomes in detail. It typically expands upon all of the content in the Design Proposal, revised to include the final design details and test results. Depending upon the case it may include user documents, maintenance plans, etc.
Informal - For all, clean clothing with no major rips. You may have a slight odor and need some washing. clothing can be revealing, but not to the point your parents would complain. Any messages on the clothes should also be somewhat acceptable but not consider black bars or beeps. Exposed flesh or undergarments at the middle of the body is barely tolerated.
Grunge - For all, clothing should smell and desperately need washing. Major rips are strongly desired. Hair should be unwashed and messy. You should have messages and body parts exposed that would require a rating of PG-13 at the local theater.
Many of our courses have self contained projects beginning in the first semester with EGR 101 - CAD/CAM. The students must design and build a motor controlled mechanism that is manually controlled with switches. A similar project it typically done in EGR 345 - Dynamic System Modeling and Control. However the junior level students are given more stringent design requirements, including the requirement that the design be controlled automatically. Once the design work is complete the EGR 101 and 345 students compete. Some course that have (or have had) projects that are self contained are listed below with project descriptions.
EGR 101 - CAD/CAM AND EGR 345 (2006) - Dynamic Systems Modeling and Control - The project involved designing and building a pair of robots that would sit on one side of a ‘soccer field’. One robot would be able to fire balls, while the other was only available for defense. In EGR 101 students were assigned to teams of 2 to design and build a robot that would be able to defend and shoot. In EGR 345 students were assigned to teams of 5-6 that would build a pair of robots, one for offense, one for defense. The projects ran independently, but were brought together for a final competition.
Given the breadth of knowledge available to upper level students it is possible to offer course projects that include more than one course. To do this students from different courses can be combined on one team, or students can do a larger project that is submitted for multiple courses. Used appropriately these can enhance the multidisciplinary experience, and allow student to bridge theoretical knowledge from multiple courses.
EGR 101 - CAD/CAM AND EGR 345 (2004) - Dynamic Systems Modeling and Control- A gantry crane using feedback control with a 68HC11 microcontroller. This project was actually done in conjunction with two laboratory sections in EGR 101 to produce teams of juniors and freshmen. This is described in detail . In the fall of 2003 the project was an anti-sway control system for a gantry crane. Students in EGR 101 were primarily responsible for the design of the gantry cart. In cooperation with the juniors they developed a design for the cart, and then produced drawings and machined parts. The EGR 345 students were responsible for the overall design including the controller, theory/simulations, software and electronic interfacing.
EGR 301 - Introduction to Product Design AND EGR 345 - Dynamic System Modeling and Control AND EGR 367 - Manufacturing Processes - Students designed an build a gardening tool for measuring temperature, humidity, and light levels. The team designed and built the entire product including, casing, electronics, software, and front panel membrane.
EGR 367 - Manufacturing Processes AND EGR 402 - Advanced Product Design AND EGR 409 - Machine Design II - These projects were done with teams of students in one or more of the courses. Typical projects are listed below.
These projects normally produce very good results, but they require that the instructors and students have a clear understanding of the requirements for each course, and how the project relates to it.
The culmination of the project experience occurs in the EGR 485/486 course sequence. These teams have variable compositions (sizes and disciplines) chosen to match the project requirements. A normal team will have 4-6 students with a blend of Electrical, Computer, Mechanical, and Product Design and Manufacturing Engineering students.
The senior projects are normally managed by one faculty member. In the fall he solicits projects from local companies and selects those that are suitable (unsuitable projects are often recommended for courses). With faculty input students are assigned to project teams. The teams then work to prepare design proposals. These proposals are expected to include detailed drawings and budgets. Once approved students should normally be able to begin ordering parts and fabricating components. The build/test phase normally lasts for a period of 2-3 months. During all phases of the projects faculty often act as ‘consultants’ to the students, and reviewers for the project coordinator. A formal signoff is scheduled with the project sponsor where they will visit and approve the final design. Grades will not be assigned for the course until the sponsor is satisfied. Grades are assigned based upon how well the students managed the projects and the project outcomes as listed below.
The project budgets are normally handled by the company and the university asks for a donation of up to 25% of the material costs to cover university expenses. There is no cost for student or faculty labor. Moreover, any intellectual property rights are normally owned by the sponsor. When done, the projects typically return to the company for use in production or test roles.
Since this approach to senior projects began in 1998 all of the projects have been accepted. In 2006 there were 12 projects that used a total of 20,245 student hours and had a combined budget over $155,000. The projects done in 2007 are listed below.
The outcomes of the project management sequence is demonstrated by the senior projects sponsored by local companies. In large part because of the hands-on skills of our graduates, the employment rate for our alumni is 100%, except for those choosing to pursue other avenue, such as graduate school.
Throughout the undergraduate program students learn theory and then apply it using projects. This helps reinforce the theoretical tools, but also makes the students more receptive to more advanced theory.
SHABBIR CHOUDHURI is an Assistant Professor in the School of Engineering at Grand Valley State University. He holds a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and a Masters and Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from Pennsylvania State University.
JOHN FARRIS is an Associate Professor in the School of Engineering at Grand Valley State University. He earned his Bachelors and Masters degrees at Lehigh University and his Doctorate at the University of Rhode Island. He has 6 years of college engineering teaching experience as well as 3 years of industrial design experience. His teaching interests lie in the first year design, design for manufacture and assembly, interdisciplinary design and machine design.
HUGH JACK earned his bachelors degree in electrical engineering, and masters and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering at the University of Western Ontario. He is currently an associate professor at Grand Valley State University and chairs the graduate and manufacturing programs. His research interests include using open source software for industrial control.
JEFFREY L. RAY is a Professor and Director of Engineering in the School of Engineering at Grand Valley State University. He holds a BS and MS in Mechanical Engineering from Tennessee Technological University and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. His primary teaching responsibilities are First-year engineering courses and coordinating the Senior Capstone Design sequence.