When Heidi Morano was a mechanical engineering undergrad, she attended classes and completed assignments. Today, as director of the Entrepreneurial Engineering Design Curriculum at Lawrence Technological University, she can offer her students something even more relevant: a shot at solving a real-world engineering problem through a program called LTU Innovation Encounter.
On October 18-19, six collegiate teams with up to six team members each will gather at LTU’s campus in Southfield to experience a four-hour creativity and innovation workshop with LTU’s award-winning mechanical engineering professor Andrew Gerhart, followed by the unveiling of the problem by corporate sponsor Eaton. Teams will then work, likely into the wee hours, before meeting with their coaches to gain feedback, iterate, and strategize their final pitches to a panel of judges.
After two full days of competition, the winning team will walk away with $1,500, a trophy, and some serious bragging rights. Second and third place teams win $1,000 and $500, respectively.
As the coach and advisor for the LTU team that will compete in the Innovation Encounter, and as an engineer herself, Morano recognizes the value this competition can offer students. “I never experienced anything like this in school,” Morano says, adding that today’s engineers need knowledge that is both deep and broad to be most successful in today’s career marketplace.
Every problem has a solution
At this stage, Eaton’s selected challenge is strictly confidential, but it involves a pain point that the students quite possibly have experienced themselves, says Larry Bennett, director of vehicle technologies and innovation in the Vehicle Group at Eaton. It’s no spoiler to reveal that the problem is automotive related.
“This is a problem we have been looking at for years. It seems simple, but we are hoping to get a non-Eaton viewpoint from a population that is younger and has a different perspective,” says Bennett. Because Eaton will retain the intellectual property from the Innovation Encounter, students will learn the legalities of corporate IP. “They will learn what is confidential, and how to protect it,” Bennett says.
The competition is not limited to engineering students; in fact, teams benefit from a broader perspective, Morano and Bennett say.
“Business students are a valuable asset, because there must be some commercial viability to the solution,” says Bennett, adding that value to the end user is a critical component of the solution. “If it’s a $20,000 solution, the end user might not buy it, but they will if it’s a $20 solution. This is all part of the value proposition of problem solving.”
Students from just about any discipline could add value to a team, says Morano. “In the past we had a nursing student participate. It’s that variety of perspectives that different students can bring to the problem that offer great input to the solution process,” she says.
Keeping it local
In its 10th year, the Innovation Encounter has connected Detroit-area companies with teams of students from LTU and five other colleges who are ready to innovate with the latest classroom knowledge and available technology, says Morano.
“Every year the problem statements are incredible,” she says. “Carhartt last year provided a fantastic problem related to worker safety and wearables that can alert supervisors when workers are walking into dangerous situations or have experienced a fall.” Past participating sponsors include Durr Systems, Ford Motor Co., Visteon, Masco, Faurecia North America, and Reverie, Leon Speakers, Inc., and ElringKlinger Automotive Manufacturing.
For Eaton, the opportunity to work with students in its own neighborhood is a big bonus.
“We’re not just getting a potential solution, but we are neighbors and we use LTU for recruiting and internships and co-ops,” says Bennett, who also serves as a chair for the Mechanical Engineering Industrial Advisory Board at LTU.
“Giving back to the community is a core Eaton belief, and this is a great opportunity to do that. It’s certainly an opportunity for Eaton’s name to be better known in the community, and for Eaton to introduce itself to different universities,” says Bennett. “I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be fun.”
This year, LTU’s team will compete with teams from Ohio Northern University and the University of Toledo. Up to three additional teams can participate; those interested can contact Heidi Morano or visit LTU Innovation Encounter for more information.