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Patents, Awards Come Out of Senior Engineering Design Class

Product engineers know that navigating the patent process can be long, arduous, and prohibitively expensive; patenting a product can cost upwards of $10,000 or even $20,000 – far more than most student inventors can afford.

But one senior design class at McCormick has given students the chance to apply for a patent free of charge by pairing them with client companies who do the financial heavy lifting for them.

The class, ME 398 Engineering Design, matches students with companies who are looking to launch new products or redesign current offerings. Over the 10-week course, the undergraduates meet with the clients, interview product users, and create prototypes of a new or improved product to fill that niche.

“The class takes students through the complete process of design, from the client’s need to the prototype,” said Wei Chen, Wilson-Cook Professor in Engineering Design and professor of mechanical engineering. “And some students get to experience the patent process, which is really valuable.”

Products designed in recent years include a no-mess paint roller for home paint jobs and a conduit bender that allowed electricians and contractors to bend metal tubing to 90-degree angles. Another product currently has a patent pending: a hybrid pump used in prosthetic legs, a project of interest to the United States Department of Defense; another, an automatic meat casing remover for the meat processing industry, won McCormick’s respected Margaret and Muir Frey Memorial Prize for Innovation and Creativity in 2010.

ME 398 begins with students selecting a client project from a list of proposals organized by Chen and McCormick’s Office of Corporate Relations. After meeting with the clients to understand their needs, students get to work researching and brainstorming for their designs. After weeks of analyzing, measuring, and rigorous engineering analysis, they have a prototype they can bring to their client.

Students quickly learn that being a successful product designer requires more than engineering skills: It takes people skills.

“It’s very demanding. Sometimes students come up with a very good idea that they’re excited about, but it’s ruled out right away by the client,” Chen said. “But that is what happens as an employee, so it’s a good experience.”

One repeat client is Scott Pyle, general manager of the North Carolina-based Zibra LLC, a manufacturer of painting tools. For three years, from 2007 to 2009, Pyle worked with Chen’s students on redesigning the company’s quick-release paint roller frame and other products.

“We were manufacturing quick-release paint rollers already, but with this class, we saw an opportunity to look at new design possibilities,” Pyle said, “We were looking for ways to make it more ergonomic, more user-friendly, and lower cost.”

Students' Design for a Quick-Release Paint Roller
Nick Graham (mechanical engineering ’07, certificate in engineering design) chose the paint roller design project sponsored by Zibra. He and three teammates started by collecting the company’s current model paint roller and those made by Zibra’s competitors. They set to work painting the off-campus bedroom of one of the team’s members, but before long, the rollers began to break.

“The quick-release mechanism wasn’t very robust,” said Graham, now an engineering team leader for GE Energy in Greenville, South Carolina.

The team started by making a model from Lego-like pieces, toilet paper rolls, and pipe cleaners; a second, more sophisticated model was crafted from Delrin. Finally they came up with a design that worked: a two-prong model that held the roller solidly in place with two spindles.

Zibra was impressed and submitted a patent application for the team’s paint roller with the students listed as co-inventors. Inevitably, Pyle said, the product underwent two more rounds of changes before the design was finalized. Still, the student’s design had a significant impact on the new product that is in the marketplace today.

“We have a whole team of professional designers and engineers working to mold these designs into products for the marketplace,” Pyle said. “But the mechanical engineering class provides another fresh perspective. They come in with no blinders, open to all new ideas. It’s been a great experience for me and the company.”

-- Sarah Ostman