Industrial and systems engineering students deliver senior projects online

Presenting senior design projects reflects the culmination of months of hard work from engineering students focused on solving real-world problems. Under normal circumstances, seniors in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Iowa would have gathered for a public presentation of their work which represented months of collaboration with teammates. COVID-19 led to a fundamental change in these presentations, and students delivered their projects remotely via Zoom.

10 teams of students presented projects ranging from improved paint efficiency to creating enhanced heliport lighting guidance. Each of the groups was sponsored by organizations such as the Eastern Iowa Airport, the John Deere Manufacturing Engineering Team, and the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

“Our ISE seniors have to complete real-world projects from actual sponsors. The students work with the sponsoring organizations to shape the statement of work and to accomplish the work,” said Tom Schnell, the Captain Jim “MAX” Gross Chair, professor of industrial and systems engineering, and director of the UI’s Operator Performance Laboratory. Schnell is also the associate director of the Iowa Technology Institute. “They also learn that proper communication is very important and that even apparently simple things can sometimes turn out to be difficult. One thing is for sure, we truly appreciate the support of our project sponsors. Without their buy-in and involvement, we could not give our seniors such a well-rounded capstone experience.”

Senior Morgan Gagnon’s team developed a plan to optimize the painting process at HNI, one of the largest office furniture manufacturers in the world, to increase capacity and meet future demands. The team created a scheduling system that would decrease the frequency of changeovers that accounted for a lot of lost production.

“Due to COVID-19, we had to adjust the scope of our project in a few different ways. Mainly, we could not go to the facility and test our solution. This required us to do some predictive modeling to find the 'results' of our solution,” said Gagnon. “Additionally, we could not implement our solution first-hand. Alternatively, we developed a playbook to show how our solution could be implemented in the future.” 

The teams were judged by members of the department’s Advisory Board comprised of alumni who work in industry positions or in academia. Advisory Board members hold positions at corporations such as Accenture, HNI, and Whirlpool as well as universities including Texas A&M.

“The ISE senior design presentations tackled real world business problems, and the students did an excellent job, in a COVID-19 environment, in providing real client value supported by strong data and analytics,” said Robert Fuhrmann, Advisory Board member and managing director at Accenture. “These students showed that they are truly ready for the real world and can tackle any business challenge thrown their way.”

In addition to the organizations already noted, support for the projects was also provided by the University of Iowa, the UI Operator Performance Laboratory, Hon Inc., and Case New Holland Industrial.

“Although our curriculum includes many case studies and team projects, senior design provides the students with a powerful opportunity to apply their hard-won knowledge on problems of practical significance with outcomes that bring meaningful impact for our industrial partners,” said Geb Thomas, professor in and chair of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. “It can be a transformational and eye-opening experience.”