December 2001


Past Issues

Contact Us

Next Article

Written by
Kris B. Mamula

An Obsession with Culture |

On cue, a heavy metal guitar riff fades to quiet when Dave Chekan starts a PowerPoint presentation in a packed Benedum Hall classroom. “Imagine a cold day in Pittsburgh,” he says with a straight face as he brings an overhead image into focus. “I know that’s hard, but try.”


It’s the last day of February, and this is the midterm presentation for the University of Pittsburgh School of Engineering's New Product Realization class. Something as simple as a cold day in Pittsburgh has spawned the stuff of entrepreneurial dreams—a product the 23-year-old Chekan and two other students on his team hope will become a blockbuster.

The three undergraduate students envision a hip jacket that keeps you warm, much like an electric blanket. The garment will have several nylon shells that snap or Velcro into place; one for every season. Batteries will power heating units sewn into the lining. In early testing, the jacket warmed up in less than a minute, Chekan boasts. The early prototype he holds up for the class requires some imagination—a patchwork cotton and nylon affair with stray wires hanging out like broken springs. “What we’re looking for is something that can be worn in Antarctica, but New England is preferred,” Chekan says.

“That’s the concept.”

A great idea, maybe, but thorny problems remain. Among people most likely to buy such a jacket when it first hits the market—gadget people, in marketing parlance—fire is a big worry, according to an online survey conducted by Victoria L. MacLaren, the team member in charge of marketing. The people she surveyed also want the batteries to last up to a half-day between charges. In early tests, the two double-A batteries that heated the jacket drained in a half-hour.

Yet those aren’t MacLaren’s major concerns. “I’m really worried about it being accepted in the long run,” the senior marketing major confides later. Young people are the target audience for the jacket, and she knows their tastes are notoriously fickle. Recalling the scooter craze, which seems to have faded as fast as it began, makes her cringe.

Although the 21-year-old MacLaren has little engineering experience, her marketing insight will be instrumental in determining the jacket’s success. Before it ever makes it to retail racks, though, some more tweaking needs to be done. Ideal placement of the heating units in the lining has to be worked out. Somehow, the batteries have to last longer between charging than they did in early testing.

Chekan and Matthew Hoopes, the team’s computer engineers, are undaunted by the work ahead. What these two lack in experience, they make up for in enthusiasm. This quality has value in the real world, where new companies must woo talented employees and investors. For instance, MacLaren was permitted to choose the new product team of her liking. “He has such a passion about the project,” MacLaren says about Chekan, in particular. “That was an important draw for me.”

Learning engineering has been compared to dancing. You can’t really pick it up until you get out of the classroom and onto the dance floor. Sometimes you step on some toes. This real-world experience, sore toes and all, has become a big push in engineering programs nationwide. Leading the way in the new approach is the University of Pittsburgh. Consider the New Product Realization class, originally an industrial engineering elective, which was first conceived and offered in spring 1999. Now, the undergraduate class has blossomed into an academic certficate, featuring classes in both engineering and business.

Here’s how it works. Teams of undergraduate engineering and business students develop an idea for a product, then design, build, test, and market it—all on a fixed budget. “It’s like the real world,” says 21-year-old computer engineering major Lynn Natale, whose team designed and developed an alarm system to rouse drowsy drivers. “You’re just thrown into it.” In addition to designing and making new products, Pitt engineering students are also encouraged to work three semesters in private industry for course credit. Between 60 and 70 percent of the school’s 1,700 engineering students take advantage of this option. Texas Instruments provided Natale’s externship. The experience came with an added bonus: before she graduated, the company offered her a full-time job.

Educators began exploring new approaches to engineering education in the 1950s, even though it was American know-how that helped win World War II. Engineering programs of that era focused on science and mathematics at the expense of such things as manufacturing, design, management, environmental impact, economic considerations, and customer needs.

In the decades that followed, says Mary Besterfield-Sacre, assistant professor of industrial engineering, walls literally sprung up between various stages of product development. In fact, throwing a particular design “over the wall” became corporate jargon for shuffling new product plans through design, manufacturing, and marketing departments. Product development time ballooned.

Chrysler is an example. In 1988, it took the carmaker 60 months—between design approval and launch—to get a new car into dealer showrooms. Battered by foreign automakers, which could pump out new products much faster than their American counterparts, Chrysler trimmed the lag to 31 months by 1997.

Chrysler’s success is rooted in the mid-1950s, when the walls separating corporate design, marketing, and other phases of product development began crumbling. In 1955, the American Society for Engineering Education released a report that criticized the way engineering was taught. The Grinter Report, named after committee chairman L.E. Grinter, made three recommendations: strengthen the teaching of basic sciences with emphasis on math, physics, and chemistry; make six science courses the common core of engineering curricula; and perhaps most important, teach engineering in the real-world context of analysis, design, and systems.

Universities around the country might have adopted each of the Grinter recommendations if it hadn’t been for the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957. Suddenly, America worried that its research and technology would be second-rate. Feeling the pressure, engineering schools began emphasizing research and analysis at the expense of such things as marketing costs, environmental concerns, availability of labor, and other real-world considerations. The result was universities churned out many great scientists, but not so many great engineers.

The breakdown of walls that historically divided people who designed, built, and marketed a product paid off big for Chekan, Hoopes, and MacLaren. While searching the Web for similar products not long after that February PowerPoint presentation, team members stumbled across British inventor Robert Rix.

Rix, who quit school at 14 to putter around his workshop, became known for his experiments with specialty fabrics. The result was Gorix, an unusual fabric that is 80 percent carbon. Its content gives the fabric a remarkable capacity for conducting heat. In fact, it conducts heat far better than the wire elements in conventional electric blankets. Rix added it to an array of products—from car seats to dive gear to pet warming blankets. Gorix-heated carpet and upholstery fabric may one day make home furnaces obsolete, the company’s Web site boasts.

Owing to the engineering students intimate involvement with every phase of product development, they immediately saw the value of using Gorix as the heating element for their jacket. Its composition makes it like one big electrical resistor. Push electrical current through a resistor, and it gets warm.

Practically overnight, the self-warming jacket design went from a wearable electric blanket to a sporty outer garment. Think ski jacket. Gorix heating elements are much smaller, lighter, and more flexible than conventional heating wires. More important, far less energy is needed to warm Gorix when compared with wires. Battery life is expected to increase exponentially over early testing. Patches of lightweight Gorix—strategically placed to take advantage of warming the blood in major blood vessels in the neck and elsewhere—worked nicely. JackHeat Thermal Industries was born!

The Grinter Report of the 1950s was among the splashier evaluations of engineering education of the day. In recent years, the National Science Foundation, National Research Council, and American Society for Engineering Education have also called for reforms. What these reports share is the belief that real-world experience, and courses in such things as management and marketing, should be part of an engineer’s education.

Probably better than any school in America, Pitt’s John A. Swanson Center for Production Innovation—which is the keystone in the University’s engineering program—embodies these ideals. “When you hit the real world, you’re working with all kinds of engineers [involved in product development],” says Besterfield-Sacre. “By working together from the start, you get a better product and faster production—at a lower cost.” She says multidisciplinary teams are ideal in the real world because everybody’s “reading from the same sheet of music at the same time.”

Using computer software with virtual design capability, the JackHeat team sketched the housing for the jacket’s thermostat. From computer-screen design, the control cover was modeled in wax, then finally cast in resin in Pitt’s Swanson Center labs.

“This center is a complete one-stop shop,” says Bopaya Bidanda, chairman of the Department of Industrial Engineering. “Pitt has the only engineering school I know of where all of the technology is seamlessly integrated under one roof.”

Three of the center’s four labs—virtual design, prototyping and reverse engineering, and rapid manufacturing—are located in the same Benedum Hall corridor.

In recent years, private industry nationwide has joined academia and engineering program accreditation agencies in clamoring for engineering education improvements. The history of manufacturing in western Pennsylvania provides some insight. The region’s history is littered with big manufacturing companies, which had sprawling engineering departments that folded or moved away. Think Westinghouse. Think Rockwell International. At the same time, smaller companies have sprung up. Medical device makers Respironics Inc. and Medrad Inc. are among the better-known local upstarts. The results have been heartening. “The new kids on the block are doing very well for themselves,” says Bidanda.

That’s no accident. To stay competitive, engineers at smaller companies have to be more versatile than ever. They have to communicate effectively, work well on multidisciplinary teams, fully appreciate the needs of the customer, and understand the pressures of the marketplace. Yesteryear’s walls isolating management, product design, and marketing have crumbled. What’s more, Bidanda says the market is demanding shorter and shorter product cycles. Chrysler, for example, projects that one day its product development cycle will be reduced to 15 months—one-quarter the time it took to roll out a new K-car in 1988. What companies like Chrysler are doing, Bidanda says, is breaking the old paradigms of product development.

In a 1997 speech, Joseph Bordogna, acting deputy director of the National Science Foundation, spotlighted the holes in many engineering programs. According to Bordogna, engineering courses were being offered as independent units with little thought given to teaching students how their studies were related. He said the courses may have been valuable, but too often they were being taught out of context, oblivious to such real-world forces as availability of natural resources, environmental impact, and market conditions.

Not so at Pitt. Here, for example, the chemical engineering curriculum has been overhauled, and the teaching of the sciences, such as physics and chemistry, has been tailored for freshmen engineers. The Carnegie Science Center recognized these improvements with awards to the University in each of the past two years.

But awards aren’t enough. The Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology requires engineering schools to measure the effectiveness of their programs. It’s up to each school to figure out how best to do this.

Pitt faculty have been at the forefront in exploring this issue. Besterfield-Sacre joined Larry Shuman, associate dean for academic affairs, and Harvey Wolfe, professor of industrial engineering, in finding ways that schools can measure how well they are doing. The National Science Foundation is underwriting the study. Soon, engineering schools nationwide will be able to use tools developed by Pitt faculty, such as self-evaluation questionnaires, to see how well their programs are working.

Pitt’s Swanson Center has taken integration of academia and the real world a step further by opening its doors to private industry. Companies can contract with the Swanson Center for research and development projects using undergraduate and graduate students.

A device to treat sleep apnea is a recent example of this partnership. First, some history. Some 40 million Americans have sleep problems; the most common is apnea. These tossers and turners awake dozens of times at night to catch their breath as the tongue and soft tissue at the back of the mouth blocks their windpipes. Classic symptoms include loud, gasping snores. The result is fitful sleep, morning fatigue, and exhaustion that not even black coffee can shake.

During the past 15 years, treating sleep apnea with a variety of products has mushroomed into a highly competitive $350 million annual market. Rich Lordo, a manager at Pittsburgh-based Respironics, valued the oxygen mask portion of that market alone at $115 million this year. What’s more, an estimated 92 percent of sleep apnea patients have yet to be diagnosed. That means the potential market for sleep apnea products is huge.

There’s just one hitch: sleep-deprived people often don’t like the industry’s oxygen mask-like devices used to treat sleep apnea. These devices boost the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream, makes for longer, more restful sleep. But some people can’t get used to wearing the unwieldy mask and tubing.

Respironics’ student research project at Pitt was to come up with a comfortable, tight-fitting mask for people with sleep apnea. The Pittsburgh-based company already markets a line of these products, but Lordo says Respironics wanted a fresh perspective.

During the semester, the undergraduate student group—David Green, Timothy J. Greenier, Thomas A. Slevinski, and Nicholas J. Trentacoste—came up with dozens of their own designs. Using three-dimensional computer imaging, masks of varying shapes and sizes were fitted onto the model of a man’s head in a Swanson Center lab. The result was a design that Lordo says may be marketed or incorporated into an existing Respironics product. Regardless of the company’s decision, Lordo says he is impressed by the Swanson Center’s capabilities. “It’s very progressive, definitely directed to meeting industry’s needs.”

Meanwhile, JackHeat has built up some momentum since finding Gorix. The self-warming jacket received a $14,000 grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. The grant will cover marketing and other expenses.

JackHeat’s final jacket design will feature Gorix patches sewn between layers of nylon. Heating the patches will be eight double-A batteries. Gorix doesn’t burn, so the possibility of fire is virtually impossible. The outer shell, which could be made of cotton, nylon, or polyester will easily detach from the core. Patent work is underway for the jacket’s temperature control mechanism and interchangeable shells.

MacLaren, in her marketing capacity, is warming up to the possibility of the jacket soon turning up in clothing stores. “Once you put it on, and feel its heat, it’s easy to feel good about it,” she says.
—Kris B. Mamula is senior editor of this magazine.

Pitt Magazine Home | Past Issues | Contact Us | Top of Page