Diane and Riley Ganka (at left) with their EDC design team

Students Linda Zhang and Carl Allen with a patient who is using NUberwalker (above). A very early prototype of the device was constructed with an erestor set (right)

Dan Brown and Walter Herbst

All about design

“Too many people think that design means putting a pretty face on a finished product,” says Julio M. Ottino, dean of the McCormick School. “But that's only the tip of the iceberg. Design is much bigger than that,” he says, stretching his arms wide to illustrate. “It is all embracing. It's a way of thinking, a pathway to creativity and innovation.”

Design begins where it ends — with a concentration on the user. “Design should be based on consideration for use — by people and society,” says design guru Don Norman, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at McCormick and author of Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. “Design should fulfill our needs, be easy to understand, be easy to use, and work the way we want it to.”

Design infuses everything at McCormick, from the sequence of courses taken by all incoming engineering undergraduates to the advanced research under way in laboratories across campus. And now, with the completion of the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, design has a sleek new home at McCormick.

Rewarded, amply, with a smile

Last winter, when Sara Wang (biomedical engineering ‘08) enrolled in Engineering Design and Communication (EDC), a two-quarter sequence taken by all new engineering undergraduates, she had been thinking about transferring out of McCormick into Northwestern's Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. But as soon as Wang and her EDC teammates became engaged in designing a walker that would offer increased mobility to a five-year-old with cerebral palsy, any doubts about engineering went out the window.

“EDC made me want to stay in engineering,” says Wang. “The best parts were refining the design and contacting the client. I really liked the little boy, and I liked being able to help his family.”

Wang and her three teammates dubbed the Spider-Man-themed walker they created Everywhere Riley, reflecting their hope that it would enlarge their young client's world. Their achievement was remarkable, says Riley's mother, Diane Ganka. “We realized that we were asking for a lot,” she says. The wish list included making the walker maneuverable over uneven surfaces like grass or carpeting, collapsible for easy transport, and small enough to fit through the kitchen door — Riley's old walker was too wide for that — yet sturdy enough to support the weight of a growing boy.

“The students addressed every single requirement,” says Ganka, “and on their own they thought of ways to make the walker even better. Instead of putting arm straps on both sides, they realized that because Riley's left side is weaker, they could design an armrest for the left side instead of a strap. It was very clever and sensitive of them.” The students asked Riley to name his favorite superhero and then put Spider-Man fabric on the armrests. “They personalized it,” says Ganka, “which is another reason Riley likes it. They went above and beyond engineering.”

In fact, personalizing design is at the heart of engineering. Jeanne Herrick, lecturer with the Weinberg College Writing Program and an EDC coinstructor, calls the Everywhere Riley project “a good example of how students learn that, by doing innovative design based on sound user-centered research, they have the potential to make a positive difference in a person's life.” Herrick says that when the students “saw Riley's smile as they showed him his new walker for the first time, their hard work was richly rewarded, far more than any grade can do.”

Kevin Chou (materials science and engineering ‘08), one of Wang's teammates, liked the hands-on challenges of EDC. He signed up for much more than the required 4 hours of machine shop training and spent another 30 hours helping to fabricate the walker. “Before I took EDC I thought I was pretty good at design,” he says, “but after some group brainstorming I learned that design is teamwork. One person can't come up with ideas as good as the team's.”

Hooked on design

EDC gets students revved up about design, but what happens after freshman year? Taking the excitement of EDC and extending it throughout the curriculum — and throughout McCormick — is the mission of the Institute for Design Engineering and Applications at Northwestern. “We want to build on EDC and provide opportunities for increasingly sophisticated work,” says IDEA director J. Edward Colgate. “We're here to support a culture of design at McCormick.” Colgate, who is also professor of mechanical engineering, adds that IDEA's new home in the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center provides the perfect environment for that mission.

In talking about design Colgate makes a distinction between creativity and innovation. “Creativity must be fostered. Innovation means applying creativity to solve real problems.” Colgate says that students can learn a structured process for innovation, a way of ensuring that their ideas meet real needs. “It starts with a client and an unmet need,” says Colgate, “and proceeds through research, creation of prototypes, testing, user feedback, and refinement to the finished product.”

IDEA has several components and is not meant to replace what departments do, says Colgate. Participation in IDEA programs is optional. Undergraduates may choose to earn a certificate in engineering design — akin to a minor in design — by completing course work and an engineering design portfolio. The portfolio has become one of the most exciting parts of the program, says Colgate. “It gives students a creative opportunity to reflect on what they've learned and a powerful way to communicate about themselves with prospective employers,” he says.

Also under the aegis of IDEA is the Manufacturing and Design Engineering (MaDE) Program, which grants bachelor's degrees to students focusing on product and process design, manufacturing systems, and manufacturing management. IDEA also oversees a graduate-level version of MaDE, the professional Master of Product Development Program.

Any McCormick student may take IDEA courses in design or join one of the ongoing Institute Projects, which resemble those in EDC but are larger in scope and open-ended, with students dropping in for a quarter or two at any point during their development, while faculty members maintain continuity. “The incoming teams have a lot of respect for the work done by previous teams,” says Colgate. “They build on that work and come up with more clever ideas, ones that have taken me by surprise.”

One Institute Project launched in fall 2003 and now nearing completion is the NUberwalker, a body-weight support treadmill training system for home use by stroke or spinal cord injury patients attempting to regain normal gait patterns. The project was requested and funded by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, with Colgate and Stacy Benjamin, senior design engineer and adjunct lecturer in IDEA, serving as faculty advisers. After observing patients on Rehabilitation Institute equipment, students began designing a home version that would be far less expensive and bulky. When it was time to mock up early concepts, the students turned to the favorite toy of budding engineers: an erector set.

David Wei (mechanical engineering ‘06), who will earn a certificate in engineering design, worked on the NUberwalker team this past summer, designing and refining several key components, such as the motorbox, folding hinge, handlebars, and setting display. Wei is enthusiastic about his experience: “I learned that engineering, especially the design aspect, is something that simply cannot be learned from a textbook. The subtleties of the design process can only be learned by doing it.”

Building on that “wow!” moment

Walter Herbst, director of the Master of Product Development (MPD) Program and adjunct professor of mechanical engineering, knows design and product development firsthand. Early in his career he invented some of the most famous Popeil products, including the legendary Pocket Fisherman and the Kitchen Magician. At Herbst LaZar Bell, the largest privately held design and product development firm in the country, he worked on products such as the Roomba® robotic floor vacuum.

MPD codirector Richard Lueptow, professor of mechanical engineering, started his career in biomedical product development before joining Northwestern's faculty.

With the support of a corporate advisory board drawn from industry leaders, Herbst and Lueptow have shaped Northwestern's MPD program into the top one of its kind in the nation.

Participants in the two-year master's degree program are engineering and technical professionals who continue in their careers while learning the fine points of product development from experts in the field. The students spend one day a week on campus attending intensive five-week courses that include many team-based projects, supplementing that experience in study groups with classmates. The 22-course curriculum reflects a 50-50 split in content between McCormick and the J. L. Kellogg School of Management, with faculty drawn from both schools as well as from industry.

In courses like Essentials of Industrial Design students learn about the emotional side of design, what product developers refer to as the “wow!” moment. “If you're presenting a new product to a potential customer — whether it's a gizmo for consumers or a defensive missile system for the Pentagon — if they don't say ‘Wow!' you'd better go back to the drawing board,” says Herbst.

Completing the program in 2005 with the MPD's second graduating class was Dan Brown, president of Consul-Tech Concepts, a product design and development firm, and founder and president of a new company, LoggerHead Tools, in Chicago. With 27 U.S. utility patents to his name, Brown is an inventor and product developer with years of experience, but he wanted to learn more. “My passion is product development,” says Brown. “I wasn't interested in becoming the biggest product development business. I went to the MPD program because I wanted to be the best.”

Brown entered the program with a prototype product in progress, one sure to evoke a “wow!” His patented Bionic Wrenchª automatically sizes and grips 16 different U.S. and metric-sized nuts and bolts, distributing force equally around the workload. The design increases the contact area of the fastener, enhancing the user's gripping force. A self-described “toolaholic,” Brown says that the design for the wrench's adjustment mechanism was inspired by the shutter of a single lens reflect camera.

But even with an appealing product in hand, Brown knew that without excellent product development it would not realize its commercial potential. So, as he progressed with his development, Brown brought his wrench to his MPD classes to share his progress with his classmates. Getting their feedback proved helpful. “The women in my Human Factors class said the handle was designed for men,” says Brown. “Having focused on the gripping mechanism, I had relied on a traditional handle design. I reevaluated the ergonomics and came up with a much better handle.” The Bionic Wrench™ won the Popular Mechanics award for “Outstanding Achievement in New Product Design and Innovation” at the 2005 National Hardware Show. Wow!

Design for designers

Offspring tend to look like their parents — only fitter and sleeker, ready to take on the challenges of a new age. Such is the case with the stunning new Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, dedicated on October 6 and located just south of venerable Tech.

The new building, clad with smooth limestone blocks, pays architectural homage to the older building, with its rugged Lannon limestone. But the new structure is lighter and airier, with large windows that provide natural daylight to more than 75 percent of the building's interior spaces — a neat trick, given that two of the building's six floors are below ground. Much of the light reaches the interior through a glass-roofed atrium and filters through glass-block stairs and flooring to brighten a cafe area. In contrast to Tech's dignified interior, the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center is more playful, its sleek fixtures warmed by cherry wood trim.

The center is chock-full of special features tailored to the design work McCormick students have been struggling to undertake in less elegant surroundings. Projects that students once completed in any space they could commandeer now occupy dedicated parts of the building, like the auto bay with overhead door that accommodates student teams working on solar-powered cars for national competitions. Other spaces in the building are multiuse, like the collaborative learning space that accommodates 64 students grouped in changing configurations.

There are two principal ways to enter the center, and each reveals something about how the building functions. The most obvious way is through the front door and into a glassed-in antechamber that overlooks an immense two-story fabrication room, where students have ample space to turn their designs into reality. The placement of the fabrication space at the entrance is telling: “The shop is the front door,” says Jay Baehr, senior project manager for Northwestern, who oversaw construction and acted as a liaison to the New York architectural firm of Davis Brody Bond. “It tells you that creation is central to the building's purpose.”

The other way to enter is through the glass-walled bridge that joins the center to the second floor of Tech. The bridge is not only convenient but also symbolic of the important connection between Tech and the new building. Even the programs that are now officially housed in the new building — EDC, IDEA, the MPD, and the Master of Management and Manufacturing — draw on faculty with offices in Tech, and easy movement between the two buildings is a must. Tech and the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center share a mission, and traffic over the bridge promises to be heavy.

- Leanne Star

Northwestern University