It's like tractor pulling


When walking around campus on 30 January 2015, one cannot ignore the buzz about the final presentations of Module 6 of Mechanical Engineering, Industrial Design and Industrial Engineering and Management. Today, the teaching staff involved will expound on the module. Module and project coordinators Eric Lutters and Winnie Dankers (both of the Faculty of Engineering Technology) indicate that they, just like their colleagues Roy Visser (Mechanical Engineering) and Erwin Hans (Industrial Engineering and Management), do not quite understand what the fuss is all about. "Industrial Engineering and Mechanical Engineering have already launched similar projects. Ours is simply the next step: we combine those projects and have Industrial Engineering and Management join in. Moreover, design education more or less by definition has to be innovatory," Eric says.

Open and realistic project

The model this year is centred on an assignment for Philips. Students of the three programmes involved are placed in mixed project groups, each forming a 'design agency' competing with the others in designing a vacuum cleaning robot for Philips. The assignment's instructions leave the students with much freedom to put their own mark on it. As it should be, Eric believes. "It is like tractor pulling. You know you will never reach the finish line, so it is all about trying to come as close to it as possible." Once the client has kicked off the project, the students have much freedom. They are responsible for figuring out what they need to do in order to best perform their assignment and they need to weigh all factors impacting the consumer product design process. This means students are to set priorities themselves, to substantiate and reflect on their choices, and to manage the project properly. Do you choose to take the time to give your prototype a glossy coating, or do you believe that this would add little to your 3D computer model and that you are better off focusing on other details? The students have to work on the product, but are fully subject to academic assessment. Philips is happy to receive all these new ideas, the students enjoy their work and the module is of high academic quality. Both coordinators are justifiably proud.


Providing an integrated module to students coming from multiple programmes is quite a challenge. "The students have highly varying backgrounds," Winnie says. "Because they come in with quite different sets of knowledge and expertise, the students have to follow different courses." Industrial Engineering and Management students, for instance, follow parts of module 2 of the Industrial Design programme, while Industrial Design students follow that module's subsequent course. "It all requires quite a bit of flexibility and improvisation in terms of scheduling and having the right rooms and supporting systems, for instance. Nevertheless, at the same time, it allows students from various programmes to lean on each other. You notice they start extensively explaining their way of thinking and acting to one another. This does put them in danger of taking too much time focusing on this aspect though, possibly impacting the quality of their final product." One may question whether that is really a bad thing, however, as learning to cooperate and set priorities are among the module's main learning objectives.

Success factors

Those learning objectives form one of the module's primary success factors. Eric believes the module is not really about the product of the project, but about the process. "Students do not have to be able to design a vacuum cleaning robot by the end of the module," he explains. "It is important for the students to be able to use a multidisciplinary approach in tackling a design challenge."

One important tip to other module teams: be practical. Do not spend too much time thinking about what went wrong or could go wrong, but try to think in terms of solutions. Do not stifle the project by laying down too many rules. Freedom is the source of magnificent products.