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Bonding Across Disciplines: Business and Engineering

When three teams of motivated students — engineering and business majors — joined forces in the inaugural convergence capstone projects to solve problems for high-profile clients, they did not disappoint. Seeds were planted for the success of future integrated projects within the Foster College of Business and the Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology.

Online

Visit bradley.edu/go/works-Convergence2014 to view a video
about the convergence of engineering
and business.

“The concept of convergence has been talked about on this campus and many other campuses for a number of years,” said Dr. Darrell Radson, dean of the Foster College of Business. “The underlying concept is that both business and engineering students will be more highly educated when they learn to collaborate on projects here and then take those skills into the workplace. But talk is only talk; action is where it really lies, and at Bradley, we are able to make it happen. We blur the academic lines, and our students work together for an extended amount of time.”

Dr. Lex Akers, dean of the Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology, noted that much has been learned through the convergence projects, which he compared to “designing an airplane in flight.” Coursework is being prepared for a series of classes during junior year that will equip students with the skill sets necessary to launch into the projects much faster. “Bonding the teams a year earlier also will enhance rapport,” he added. “Five new capstone projects are well under way from the fall semester. Students are working together, enhancing their leadership skills, and solving real-life problems for clients.”

Both deans agreed that their respective students learned the value of their peers’ knowledge as they broke down stereotypical barriers, demystified their majors, and learned each other’s unique terminology to foster clear communication. Professors, college advisory board members, and clients were impressed with the depth and level of skill the undergraduates honed during the yearlong process on the following three convergence projects.

Dr. Marty Morris, left, professor of mechanical engineering and Bradley alumnus, works on the solar photovoltaic system with James Stout, Kelsy Schmidbauer, alumnus Darrin Johnston, Kyle Palmer, Daniel Kopec and Alec Gialamas. The senior business and engineering majors combined their knowledge and skill sets to deliver a cost-effective mounting system for the solar panels and marketing recommendations to their client. Not pictured are team members Wayne Bowdish and Greg Fehlau.

Solar Photovoltaic System 

Engineering advisers: Dr. John Engdahl and Dr. Marty Morris

Business advisers: Ken Klotz and Carey Novak

Due to explosive growth in the solar photo-voltaic panel (PV) market over the past five years, a client wanting to incorporate PV into its electric power generation portfolio set a goal for this convergence team: design a significantly lower-cost PV-mounting system so customers would benefit from the cost-effective measures and include PV as part of their power-generation solution. The client charged the team with analyzing the PV industry and market segments, estimating market potential, identifying future obstacles, benchmarking top competitors and analyzing their business models, interviewing selected and potential customers to define needs, creating and evaluating alternate business models, and recommending a course of action and implementation plan.

The overall objective of the PV project was to cut the cost of generating electricity. The driving forces in the industry analysis were rising fuel prices, technological advancements, and government mandates and incentives. The team determined the outlook for PV is positive as petroleum prices are driving customers to the PV market. 

Both the engineering and business students interviewed a sampling of dealers in the network who would be selling the product and learned of the wide diversity of requirements they would need to consider when designing and marketing the solar panel. Overall profitability and a three- to seven-year return on investment were priorities. 

“We worked toward an understanding of the product and each other’s language in terms of business students communicating with engineering students,” business major Kelsy Schmidbauer said. “We also learned to balance client expectations in a timeline.” 

Initially, they designed and analyzed three prototypes of solar panel mounting systems: the fixed vertical tube, the fixed tilted tube, and the one-axis tracking panel. They evaluated each model in terms of installation and structural component cost as well as the levelized cost of generating energy over a 25-year period. 

After several iterations, the team recommended the fixed vertical tube design for the client. They simplified the structure, kept the costs relatively low, and improved its performance. Understanding that one design will not work for every customer in every location, they also created a system evaluator tool to help facilitate the answer to two critical questions: Can the PV produce customer value? If so, in what locations? 

The system evaluator tool is basically a spreadsheet that takes into account many engineering and business inputs to produce an output for a given system. It offers solutions in four metrics: payback period, net present value, internal rate of return, and levelized cost of electricity.

Keeping cost as a key component, they also made marketing recommendations based on research of 100 countries to determine which locations are most feasible and financially attractive for the product. 

Green Global Energy Radiant Heater 

Junior Kaitlyn Sliwski, clients Jeff Green and Dave Finn, junior Ben Knippel, and seniors Jeffrey Shen, Adriana Duron, and Tori Scotti review the radiant heater redesign the convergence team developed for Green Global LLC. Originally patented by a European company, the students were tasked with redesigning the heater to meet U.S. building codes. Not pictured are team members Alex Wilson and Jeffrey Smith.

Engineering adviser: Dr. Marty Morris 

Business adviser: Ken Klotz

In 2012, the clients bought the assets of a failed business and set up a new company with the intent to market an improved product. They gave this convergence team patented technology for a low-intensity infrared radiant heating system used to warm large, open spaces such as factories and warehouses. However, the technology was created in Europe, and when installed here, some of the components and fittings were not compatible with U.S. building codes. They were tasked with redesigning the heater to eliminate defects in the original model. 

Radiant heating units work by warming stainless steel tubes that emit infrared heat. The tubes are positioned to radiate heat toward the floor and can present an energy cost savings of 30 to 75 percent, depending on the application.

The team worked together to determine how to maintain product differentiation while reducing costs since the original heater, although highly differentiated, is expensive and complicated to produce.

The business students researched the commercial heating industry in terms of building size for potential clients nationwide. They examined branding and product differentiators, conducted an industry and competitor analysis, and produced a financial pro forma. They also reviewed climate and population density maps to determine target markets for the heater and gave the clients an estimate for the radiant heating market. 

However, compiled feedback from potential clients “became the most critical component in the project,” explained marketing major Tori Scotti. “Our interviews proved that up-front costs were critical to consumers, and we worked side-by-side with the engineering students to make sure we were speaking the same language.” 

After the business students provided the engineering students with market research that affected the heater’s redesign, the engineering students developed an analytical model like the existing heater, allowing the clients to go into the program and make adjustments. The analytical model predicts temperature, distance along the pipe, and heat output, helping to drive the design of a superior reflector while lowering material costs. The team also furnished the clients with a thermodynamic model of a radiantly heated space, so the clients could compare the efficiency of forced-air heating and radiant heating to prove cost savings to customers. 

They redesigned the heater with an M-shaped stainless steel reflector for increased efficiency and corrosion resistance. The team decided to incorporate a device to preheat the incoming air to increase energy-saving efficiency and provide a simple, inexpensive and persuasive product differentiator. While reducing material costs by 20 percent, part count by 30 to 40 percent, and reflector material costs by 45 percent, the redesigned system increased the radiation reflected by 83 percent.

The students’ research showed that performance contracts are popular with schools as well as companies, so the team recommended that Green Global Energy partner with corporations such as Honeywell, Johnson Controls and Chevron. 

Seniors Emily Schaefer, Daniel Romane, Bradley Krafft, and Bradley LaFary demonstrate with Dr. Kalyani Nair, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, the hemodialysis catheter they designed for ELGCo, an LLC specializing in medical device innovation. The project is in the patent process. Not pictured are team members Josh Ray, Eric Winterton, Jesse Rieker and Michael Sotiros.

ELGCo Hemodialysis Catheter 

Engineering adviser: Dr. Kalyani Nair

Business adviser: Ken Klotz

An internationally renowned interventional radiologist, inventor, and founder of ELGCo challenged this convergence team to design a cost-effective hemodialysis catheter. With an average annual cost of $80,000, a single dialysis patient’s treatment is a significant incentive for the medical community to find ways to reduce expenses. A specialist in medical device innovation and development, the client tasked the team with designing a device that can be positioned off the vein wall to reduce fibrin sheath buildup. He also gave them a size limitation to ease the catheter’s insertion. Focused on a project development business model, his intent is to sell the concept to a mature device company.

The team learned that hemodialysis is a procedure for kidney-failure patients, and, according to research, 50 percent of traditional catheters fail within 12 weeks. With a goal of designing a catheter that does not damage the vein nor reduce blood flow, accounting/economics major Bradley Krafft noted, “We had to get up to speed understanding hemodialysis itself because one of the most important tools is learning the client’s business.” 

During their first semester on the project, students concentrated on understanding the market and identifying customer needs by conducting in-depth interviews with local nephrologists and others in the medical field, including business managers and a dialysis center’s director of operations. Their professional input was factored into the product design and business model. These experts affirmed that fibrin buildup and cutting costs are major concerns, and the statistics they provided helped with the market research. The team also reviewed current patents that are not on the market and compared their design process against current standards. They found no design that centers the catheter in the vein and off the vein wall.

Toward the end of the process, the client recommended the engineers develop a catheter with NiTinol, a shape-memory alloy used in stents. Following his suggestion, the team designed and developed two 3-D models and 2-D drawings with dimensions and specs. 

The project is now in the patent process and is positioned as a cost-saving device that combats fibrin sheath buildup for improved blood flow rates. 

By extending the catheter’s lifespan, the number and frequency of invasive procedures dialysis patients experience will be reduced. If patented, the business model expectation is for ELGCo to be acquired by a major healthcare company.   

By Karen Crowley Metzinger
Photography by Duane Zehr