Ask American business owners how much research and development they can buy for the price of a small car and the answers are likely to be snorts or guffaws followed by "not much."
But $16,500 can buy sponsorship in a university program pairing eager engineering seniors with real-life problem-solving projects that has caught the attention of industry giants and start-up entrepreneurs.In the school year just ending, Brigham Young University engineering students in the school's Capstone program have redesigned components of Iomega's Zip drive and the pop-out connector on a popular modem. An automotive component developed by a student team has been patented and a redesigned knee brace for athletes is in the patent process.
Another team that designed and built a Mini-Baja all-terrain vehicle entered the project in a nationwide competition in El Paso this past weekend.
Mechanical engineering senior Dani Johnson and her team were given the task of building an automated device that would look at silicon wafers used to make computer chips. The device needed to be able to find the wafer's center, measure its thickness and locate an identifying notch on the wafer's edge.
But the component could be no more than 5 inches high, which didn't leave enough room to mount a viewing lens inside. So the team cannibalized a hand-held computer scanner that would fit inside the 5-inch-tall box and used it to "look" at the wafer's physical characteristics as a motor-driven turntable spun the wafer around.
A design model was made using a computer. The three-dimensional image of the device that emerged on the computer screen became a tangible prototype one piece at a time.
Some components were built on campus; other parts had to be bought from outside vendors. A motor ordered to drive the turntable didn't show up when it was supposed to - one of a number of unexpected things things complicating the team's testing schedule.
"We thought this was going to be easier than it really was," Johnson said after the project was finished.
Sponsors of the 30 projects just completed include Boeing, Dole, Raytheon Aircraft and Thiokol. Recent projects have also been sponsored by Ford, General Motors, Unisys, Megadyne, NASA, Geneva, Hewlett Packard, Delco Remy, Ballard Medical, Valtek, Bayliner, Intel and the U.S. Marines.
The majors of students who participate include mechanical engineering, manufacturing engineering, business, statistics, chemistry, electrical engineering, electronics engineering technology and industrial design.
A good number of the projects make the leap from prototype to production. At least 21 of 29 projects tracked from one year ago have been implemented by their sponsors, said Capstone director Carl D. Sorensen.
Capstone manager Len Pugh recruits sponsors during the summer and said 60 to 70 percent of the sponsors in the 8-year-old program are repeat customers.
Each program cycle takes a full school year to complete. "We promise them 800 to 1,000 student hours and 100 to 130 faculty hours," Sorensen said. Throw in the university's computer-aided design resources and the manufacturing labs where prototypes are built and sponsors are getting a lot for $14.60 to $18.33 per hour.
Each team has a budget and office space in the school's bustling computer-aided design lab. Team members are in regular contact with project coaches and sponsors by phone, fax and e-mail.
Students sometimes have to talk sponsors out of additional money if, for example, their project requires pricey materials, but add-ons to the $16,500 base price are still a real bargain. "Most have already looked at research and development costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars," Pugh said.
Intellectual and patent rights? Sponsors take those with them as well.
Students benefit from non-textbook experiences that introduce them to potential employers - some of whom sponsor Capstone projects as a direct recruiting tool.
New Yorker Jeff Chancey and business partner Steve Booth used to recruit at BYU, their alma mater, when they worked for General Motors.
Chancey and Booth saw an opportunity to manufacture automotive air-conditioning control valves cheaper than GM was doing it in-house and left GM and started their own firm, Alumina Precision, to pursue the idea. "But we needed the design expertise - Steve and I both have business backgrounds."
A six-member Capstone team redesigned the valve to their liking and the device is now patented, Chancey said. "One of the reasons we had a draw to it was the price was right and there were no issues with intellectual property."
The BYU design cuts manufacturing costs by at least 50 percent for a valve used in half of the automotive air conditioning systems worldwide, Chancey said. "The potential market right now is about 10 million units a year."
There were some advantages when manufacturing and engineering students worked on textbook projects recreated in the lab, said Robert H. Todd, chairman of BYU's Manufacturing Engineering and Engineering Technology Department. Results were predictable and easier for a professor to evaluate. But that was "too much like teaching classes on the theory of hitting, the theory of pitching and the theory of fielding but never letting the students play baseball," Todd said.
Before his Capstone experience building the Mini-Baja racer, "nobody ever taught us how to work with vendors," said Kevin Merrell. Component cost restrictions meant the team had to scour out the best price for vehicle components. "That's something you do all the time in the real world."
"We've been taught the theory of design. To go out and build it is a different story," said Mini-Baja team member Chris Jones.