Judging GT's Capstone Design Expo

Capstone Dec 2105 best overall

December 6, 2015: On Thursday the 3rd I had the privilege of judging a portion of the entrants in GA Tech’s semester ending Capstone Design Expo. This affair, under the direction of the School of Mechanical Engineering, featured more than 110 displays across a range of five disciplines from Biomedical Engineering to ECE and attracted probably 500+ student participants and a total audience of around 2,500 including parents, faculty, staff, and the Tech community. It was held in the McCamish Pavilion, home of GT basketball, and with a crowd of that size I thought a game might break out as a dessert following the show.

This was an innovation event, but not one focused on entrepreneurship as a way of expressing innovation. Most of the teams had a corporate sponsor which provided funding, guidance, mentoring, and the kernel of an idea or a problem to be solved. The list of sponsors that scrolled around the arena message board was long and ranged from smaller companies to household brands. This resulted in many benefits. Students were generally working on ideas of some consequence and ones that required engineering rigor. The ones I judged or talked with were light on business analysis but very heavy on science and ingenuity. Most were downright interesting, which explains the drawing power of the event.

I happened to judge the winner of the ECE group, a guitar that could emulate almost any other musical instrument. The were resistors between the frets; pressing the steel string modulated a current flow in a way that their attached device could translate the chords into appropriate sounds of the piano, for example. This one wasn’t a corporate challenge, but it was darn clever. I asked a bit about their plans for this, and there was mention of first trying to protect their IP. I have no musical bent, but I could envision this as something that might become part of a game or toy if the IP were secured and it were fully developed into a consumer form factor at the right price point.

On the other end of the spectrum was one sponsored by BMW. Their assembly line in Spartanburg, SC, has a step where a human has to grab from a bin a door hinge and insert it into the door as it passes by. The issue is an inability for robots to grasp the hinge in the correct orientation for that one procedure. So, the students designed a small conveyor system that gathers all the hinges, sends them down a track where the ones oriented correctly for the robot fingers are ready to grab, while all the ones oriented the opposite way fall down a chute that reenters them into the mechanism as many times as necessary for them to land right side up. I thought that would look pretty cool next to my Christmas tree, since my son has my 1950’s Lionel electric train circling his tree.

One in my judging group was a “hardened” 40% scale turbine power mechanism for use in disaster areas, particularly third-world flood plains where a fast moving water source could be used to spin a turbine that generates power for communication services. This one was so large that it and about a half-dozen other similarly sized prototypes had to be displayed outside. Of note there, every one of the students I met on that team have already lined up good jobs in the telecom world and will soon be competing with each other. You might like that one in your front yard for decoration, or at least a conversation piece. It was built to spec for a sponsor.

There’s an immediate payback to the corporate sponsors of Capstone. They get some actual problems addressed, and they have direct access to potential hires. I hope next year my biomedical company can throw some challenges into the hopper; the BME School was very well represented at this event. We’ll have no shortage of interesting projects to carve out for activities of the scope suitable for this competition.

I have written before about my hope to infuse more corporate DNA into our innovation projects at UT Austin. We’ve been presented a number of problems that require an entrepreneurial solution. The Capstone subjects were more akin to sponsored research. Students learned how to work with sponsors who have very specific and well defined problems, e.g. the BMW door hinge orientation. But, many large companies have issues that extend beyond their corporate boundaries and require third-party coordination with their peers and competitors. They may need access to shared technology from other companies or even other industries. In many cases just a fresh look from a motivated entrepreneurial team might change practices for the better and cause the proverbial disruption from within and not from without.

We have in our Innovation Center the Idea to Product competition,  and GA Tech has participated in this in the past. GT also now has Idea to Prototype, with a similar mission. These variations on the I2P theme do allow students the chance to examine the possibilities of commercializing their own creative ideas. Unlike Capstone, they are looking at the realities of a business outcome for their inspiration. And, both are heavily focused on science-based concepts and are not platforms for the next restaurant app, my favorite example of the problem that has already been solved too many times.

There’s no reason to change any of these programs whose formulas are working well. But, after experiencing my first Capstone Design Expo, I am interested in emulating at UT its high energy and broad participation in ways that promote entrepreneurial innovation. There is no shortage of grand challenges from corporate partners, and both UT and GT are blessed with talented students who would tackle the challenges that transcend directed research.

Congratulations to all the winners at the Capstone Design Expo. If you’re in Atlanta and haven’t attended, check the website for the date at the end of spring semester. It will be time well spent. And, if you’re in Austin, enjoy a visit to the similar but less celebratory Capstone program in ECE at the Cockrell School near the end of each semester.

<Image from the December Capstone FLICKR stream of the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech.>