Tuesday, August 16, 2016

My grand prize-winning experience in the 2015/16 ECE Design Competition

Over the last year I took part in the ECE Design competition. My team, “Fountain of Youth”, won first place (more on that later). The team consisted of myself (Ryan Collins), Gannon Gesiriech, Kevin Nematzadeh, and Boulos Haddad. All of us are electrical engineering students - except Boulos who was our business and marketing expert. Our goal was to design a product which helped mitigate the problems that come with aging. We designed a natural-feeling motor-assisted personal shopping cart that promotes activity and facilitates independent living.
Originally, I was not going to take part in the competition because I was busy with student orgs, a heavy class load, and TA-ing, but once I found out that it would satisfy senior-design credit (thank you, Dr. Nguyen) I could make it work with my schedule.  
As many engineering students know, class alone isn’t sufficient to satisfy craving the we have for technical knowledge.

One of my biggest goals this year was to carry out a technical project from start to finish so that I could talk about it in future job interviews. This project was perfect because it was multidisciplinary, included a business aspect, and had a direct application to a real-world problem.
This project was year-long and consisted of three steps: First was team selection in the fall, then research/data gathering and conceptual design in the winter, and finally the product development and marketing strategy in the spring. We held monthly design reviews where each team has 5 minutes to present to fellow students, and faculty (including the renowned godfather of design Dr. Don Norman). These reviews helped tremendously because it kept us accountable for the progress we made, and we developed invaluable presentation skills.
The design process for our team was pretty straightforward. First we went to senior centers and care facilities to talk to as many people as we could and learn more about the problems associated with aging. One of the interesting observations we made was that people tend to adapt to obstacles and have a hard time realizing their problems. We got around this by talking to caretakers and simply taking note of issues we had witnessed while observing people.
We were able to group the majority of problems into several major categories including mobility, health, safety, and memory. We brainstormed possible solutions and determined that the most reasonable goal was to design something that would solve a problem in mobility. We had several people say that grocery shopping was difficult due to heavy groceries and long distances traveled. This was something we knew we could solve by motorizing a cart and making it as user-friendly as possible.
We started with an already existing foldable shopping cart, and decided to retrofit it with motors and force sensors. The force sensors would read in the user’s force of push, and translate that into a speed that the motors should turn. Easy, right? Well it was easy on paper, until we actually started to build the prototype.
The first month of development was difficult because we could not find parts that fit all our requirements. We had to settle, but we were able to work around all the problems we encountered.
Word of advice: Avoid having to find motors. Finding the right ones is a nightmare.

Eventually, we made enough progress to assemble our prototype. We built a custom motor mount in the ECE makerspace in the basement of EBU 1 (thanks to our advisor Professor Michael Yip for allowing us access). We also attached our force sensors, and wrote control code to read the sensors and output the motors’ speeds.
We encountered many problems along the way, such as broken microcontrollers, mechanical issues, and safety of use. After a few long nights, and an all-nighter the night before the competition, we completed it. Though it did not feel as natural as we hoped, it worked. That was important because it provided a proof of concept and future improvements could always be implemented.
During the competition, many people tested out the prototype, and we had an exceedingly positive response during the demo phase. When it came time to present, we had actually had lots of practice from monthly presentations and we had even competed in several entrepreneurial challenges (which we did not win, but we learned a lot from). Somebody after our presentation said that it reminded them of an Apple presentation, which was quite flattering, but I remain skeptical.
In the end we took first place among some very dedicated teams. Dr. Don Norman said that the reason we placed first was because we showed the most consistent improvement throughout the design cycle from start to finish. We showed that we could set and meet goals, as well as use helpful criticism to improve our product. I also think that our presentation was engaging, and that we greatly benefitted from allowing people to get hands-on with our cart during the demo phase.
The faculty were very accommodating, making the whole process a pleasure from start to finish. We learned valuable lessons about marketing a product, solving a real problem, and the compromises necessary in product design. A big thanks to our mentor and professor Michael Yip, and the ECE Chair Dr. Nguyen for his tireless assistance. Also to Dr. Don Norman for lending his immense design wisdom over the course of the entire project. Lastly thanks to the staff and faculty of the ECE department as well as the Center for Healthy Aging for their help.

By Ryan Collins

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