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An Entrepreneurial Approach to Capstone: A Factory4U

About a year ago last February I had the privilege of being involved when WSU re-started active recruitment of regional top high-school students via a faculty call-a-thon. We faculty would call top high-schoolers considering college and we would answer any questions they had about WSU, their planned majors, or life in general on the Palouse. In short, the effort was a substantial success with a huge increase in the percentage of these top students committing to WSU. However, I’ve long had an uneasy feeling about one of my phone calls–

The phone rang and he answered. I introduced myself as Professor Leachman and asked if he had time to talk. His response was uncharacteristically calm, sincere, and efficient: “Look, I’m kindof in a hurry. So what’s your pitch? Why should I go to WSU?”

My mind reeled. I was prepared to answer why WSU over UW — a relative response. But an absolute response — answering without comparison to other schools, in a way that was original and definitively WSU… I thought about pulling a Mike Leach and responding with, “Well that’s a stupid question.” — not right for this kid’s sincerity. This was the exact type of student we wanted to recruit. It was the obvious question and despite eight years of recruiting for my department and nearly a lifetime in the region, I wasn’t prepared. The Cougar Nation and ‘Work ready day one’ wasn’t what this kid was looking for. We needed something more.

What students, the NSF, and alumni want from degree programs

Students want the “University Experience” — something that fundamentally changes them, adding definitive lifelong values that shape careers and families, to have pride in becoming a community bigger than themselves. And every University in the US is continually working to shape their brand promise into a unique and distinct experience for students while still conforming with the needs of regional constituents and accreditation standards.

That’s no small task. To give you an idea how hard it is for universities to adapt to an ever changing cultural milieu, many alumni, foundations, and federal funding organizations offer substantial funding awards to promote change.

Last Fall I was tasked with leading the development of a Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (RED) proposal to the National Science Foundation for the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. The NSF RED program offers $1M, 5 year grants “to catalyze revolutionary, not incrementally reformist, changes to the education of the next generation of engineers. Revolutionary means radically, suddenly, or completely new; producing fundamental, structural change; or going outside of or beyond existing norms and principles…”

The activities specifically sought by the RED program include:

  1. Establishing convergent technical and professional threads that must be woven across the four years, especially in core technical courses of the middle two years, in internship opportunities in the private and public sectors, and in research opportunities with faculty;
  2. Exploring strategies for institutional, systemic, and cultural change, including new approaches to faculty governance or department structures and to restructuring faculty incentive or reward systems;
  3. Exploring collaborative arrangements with industry and other stakeholders who are mutually interested in developing the best possible professional formation environment and opportunities for students;
  4. Exploring strategies to bridge the engineering education research-to-practice gap, primarily through faculty development and adoption of best practices in the professional formation of engineers; and
  5. Exploring revolutionary means of recruiting and retaining students and faculty reflective of the modern and swiftly changing demographics of the United States.

Over several decades the MME capstone design program has decisively shown that many of these activities are what our alumni want. Our alumni want to provide real projects that help their alma maters, they want to help us remain professionally relevant, they want to play a role in coaching the next generation, and they want to hire our awesome grads. I would argue that this is true of all disciplines at WSU.

To capture this info, MME sent a survey out to our current students, alumni, advisory board members, and faculty/staff. The first question was “What’s your bluesky vision for MME’s design program?” If you’re unfamiliar, bluesky is often used to describe a wild dream idea that is not yet practical or profitable due to certain realities — in a perfect world we’d have _____. The concept of bluesky is novel enough to clean the cognitive pallet of survey respondents while providing an interesting baseline for the group. Here’s a few responses to what the Bluesky vision for MME design and manufacturing should be:

  • Design for Manufacture courses should be the core of the Engineering curriculum – it’s the class that throughout a student’s time in the program grounds them back to the “why.”
  • Design for Manufacture concentration of courses should taken by students every semester they are at WSU.
  • A program that builds the best foundation for continuing experience, giving graduates real world skills that bring value to their community.
  • A program that will help industry bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States.
  • Every student in ME would be individually confident and capable in manufacturing design and application.
  • “Real-World Applicable”
  • Everyone being so engaged and interested in homework or projects that it’s something they actively seek out to do.
  • MME students know how to get something made; not just designed, not just fabricating a prototype or assembling off the shelf, but understanding the entire cycle from design for manufacturing to life-cycle analysis concerns.
  • Figure out whatever it is the Germans are doing.
  • FactoryU: Design and Manufacturing Education Reimagined as a Production Operation
  • The best undergraduate experience in mechanical and materials engineering in the country.

Challenge accepted.

What the Germans are doing

Back in 2012, the German government launched a new initiative promoting what they called “Industry 4.0”. Industry 4.0 is the phrase used to describe what is becoming known as the fourth industrial revolution towards Internet of Things (IOT) and cyber-physical systems. The IOT, much like the internet and the prior industrial revolutions, will fundamentally disrupt all disciplines, not just mechanical and materials engineering. The following figure shows a progression of industrial revolutions:

Image credit: Christopher Roser, Allaboutlean.com

Industry 4.0 has four key principles:

  1. Interconnection
  2. Information transparency
  3. Point of use technical assistance
  4. Decentralized decisions

All four of these principles are becoming increasingly needed in any major in academia and by industry in our region that is rapidly adopting Industry 4.0. With this key piece, we knew we had the structure for our pitch to the NSF RED program.

Factory4U: Cooperatively Managed, Data Systemic, Learning Factories

The following is the excerpt of the Vision Statement for MME’s NSF RED proposal:

Jesse’s foot often shakes when she is excited about new ideas, but this was game-changing. She couldn’t contain herself, exclaiming, “It’s a Factory4U!” Her manufacturing elective project teammates looked at her with quizzical anticipation. Jesse continued, “The entire curriculum, all of us, we’re analogous to an Industry 4.0 factory.” She quickly got up, grabbed a marker, and began to draw on the white-board.

“Our curriculum already follows the design process: freshmen learn how to identify problems and generate ideas, sophomores CAD the concept, juniors manufacture the parts and optimize the life-cycle, and seniors work with clients to deliver. It’s the decentralized decision making process of Industry 4.0 — each class is like a separately functioning engineering division within a company. Except our courses currently don’t work together at all. Faculty just make up the project assignments. It could all be fixed if we seniors could outsource our capstone project tasks by working with early courses, even outside our majors, and pull projects through to completion. Just think how efficient we would be if lower level courses added value to capstone.”

Flow structure for the Factory4U.

Jesse’s teammate chimed in, “The design classes form a spine of professional practice throughout seven of the eight semesters of the curriculum that would help sophomores and juniors. I might not have made it through my sophomore year without a senior mentor. But what will I do with all the extra time in capstone?”

Jesse was ready, “Manage the experience for your clients. We can revise and optimize as needed. What’s more, if we moved Senior Design forward by one semester, we’d be able to test our prototypes in the Experimental Design course before delivery. We’d also be able to work with other majors in year-long capstones. Why are we not doing this already?”

Her first teammate raises an eyebrow,“It’s logistically complex. We only have a couple of faculty members running capstone. For this to be successful, you’d need an incredible management system.”

Jesse thought for a moment, “We could form a cooperative within the university. It’s like the food cooperative back home, or the local ag cooperative, that coordinate the efforts of many producers to sustain the members — and everyone gets a vote. We could elect students from all of the design and manufacturing courses to be on a board of representatives with elected faculty-members, project-sponsors, and community members that manage the cooperative. The mission of the board would be to sustain the Factory4U like a non-profit business based on the revenues from capstone projects. We could even bring in business and communication majors for financial and marketing plans.”

Her first teammate remained skeptical, “Isn’t Industry 4.0 also about embedding internet-of-things, big data analysis, and point-of-use technical assistance? How can we incorporate these?”

Her other teammate jumped in, “Crowd-source a fundraiser. There have to be many foundations and big companies that can help us to do this. We could use the funds to hire a staff member to setup a basic Factory4U system that we continuously improve based on future project revenues. There are local experts that we can collaborate with to setup an open-source web platform to handle the internet side. We could adapt our manufacturing technical electives to analyze the data and make improvements to the Factory4U. Our state has a Manufacturing Extension Program with change-experts that help organizations adapt to advanced manufacturing philosophies. They could probably mentor us while using the Factory4U to teach local industry and community members.”

Jesse’s first teammate was now opening up, “I can see how this could work. The default is just the status quo. This Factory4U won’t be easy. We just need to begin.”

Thus was born the vision for a cooperatively run, faculty and industry mentored, community-supported, crowd-funded and self-sustaining student enterprise for a societally and industrially relevant engineering design process spanning over all four years of the undergraduate curriculum.

The concept and proposal are a big hit so far. We received letters committing support from no less than Intel, Microsoft, Amazon, and Boeing. We’ll start fundraising efforts in the coming months.

Getting the timing and resources right

Every degree discipline at WSU tends to have a capstone program with some level of industry/real world involvement. Hence, the non-profit, self-managed student cooperative model is transferable. By combining this model with faculty from business and marketing, this model can be a major revenue source to sustain the core laboratory facilities that students utilize for capstone. The key question is a classic challenge for any entrepreneur: How much money is required and when is the right time to phase this in? Of course there is never enough money or connections and the timing is never perfect or enough. You just have to begin and get as far as you can, as fast as you can.

Funny thing is that along the way, you start to attract attention, you build momentum, and people take notice. A community forms. People identify with the movement as being original, definitive. Folks start to say, “Why can’t we do that here?” and then do. Eventually the movement becomes the expectation, like capstone programs after phasing in during the late 1990’s. But it takes a start.

I want to go back to that phone call with the perspective student. I want to say, “Why WSU? Because we’ve got a Factory4U.”

I’ll be ready next time.

EFA Accomplishments in Year 1 — A Review

“We’ve established a tangible, direct connection between university faculty and the general public that is in-line with our Land-Grant mission.” ~Joe Harding, Professor of Physiology and founding EFA member.

The Entrepreneurial Faculty Ambassadors (EFA) were established as a WSU Presidential Level Taskforce in the fall of 2017, following the ERIE report released in the spring of that year. In our inaugural year the EFA has an extensive list of accomplishments:

  1. Established the Innovation and Outreach Speaker Series to bring in high-level entrepreneurial minded speakers.
  2. Established a partnership with the non-profit Palouse Discovery Science Center’s Science-Pub Fundraiser to find innovative speaker events.
  3. The Promotion and Tenure Committee worked with the Provost Office and Deans to develop recommendations for encouraging entrepreneurial activities within the context of tenure and promotion.
  4. The Community and Resource Committee (CRC) adopted an advisory group model for EFA in line with the Association for Faculty Women by-laws and framework in addition to identifying initial officers. To engage the community the CRC developed this website, and created the EFA Social Media Presence.
  5. Began hosting the Translational Medicine Symposium
  6. Took over facilitating the Spokane Innovator Networking Event (SINE)
  7. Created and awarded the first WSU Innovation and Entrepreneurship Award for Faculty which was presented to Professor Juming Tang at the 2018 Showcase Dinner.
  8. We planned the inaugural Fall EFA retreat.

It was a year for establishing the framework for awesome progress to come!