John Deere, like other successful multinational companies, always has a hopper of engineering ideas they would like to explore: exciting new technology, improvements to their existing product line, novel product ideas and more. One such project on the list was to develop new and refined functionality for their TANGO E5 Autonomous Lawnmower.  Based on the requirements and timing of the project and U-M’s expertise in robotics, John Deere felt this was an excellent project for some eager and talented students.

So John Deere turned to the Multidisciplinary Design Program (MDP) at U-M’s College of Engineering. Each year, MDP partners with 30-40 corporations, nonprofits, government entities and internal University clients, assembling multidisciplinary teams of five to seven students from across 11 of U-M’s schools and colleges to solve real-world industry problems.

“Students’ enthusiasm, energy and intellect can bring solutions to the table,” said Joy Adams, MDP’s program manager. “John Deere recognized this and wanted to bring creative thinking to the project.”

Every MDP team is assigned a dedicated faculty member who “guides students through the engineering design process,” explained Adams. “They also get a mentor from the sponsoring company who sets expectations for the delivery projects.” The real-world work has direct academic application. “Students can earn academic credit through an MDP project, including Senior Capstone for some majors, instead of taking a class in their department.”

In this case, Assistant Professor Matthew Johnson-Roberson and Professor of Practice Harvey Bell, MDP’s faculty co-advisor, led students through the work of solving TANGO E5’s complex issues which included learning about the products and customers first-hand at one of Deere’s dealer training events.

“The students were able to test drive the mowers and talk to engineers,” says Adams. “Students experienced the products firsthand, and the faculty members were invited, as well.”

At the end of the year, the students had given TANGO E5 new life—or at least an improved sensor system that kept the mower on the right path safely and effectively. But there was much more to be gained than just a successful engineering outcome.

3432674343_9165bbbd28_o“Programs like this help build the next generation of engineers,” said John Deere’s Manager, Turf & Utility Product Portfolio Planning Lynette Sapienza, who served as a program sponsor. “It helps create a different view of problems that need to be solved.” What’s more, it helps companies like John Deere raise awareness about the kind of work they do and to recruit talented students.  “We’ve hired a few Michigan students post-MDP, and we’re always delighted when there’s a good fit all around,” Sapienza says.

Adams agreed that there are myriad benefits and positive outcomes to the MDP projects beyond just finding effective solutions.

“Though successful completion of every project is a goal, student learning is a higher priority than project success,” she said. “The focus is bringing students through the experience, and preparing them for the rigors of research.”

Adams said the Business Engagement Center (BEC) helps open doors to these academic and industry collaborations. “The BEC has always been a strong partner. About 65 percent of the introductions we make with companies come from leads from the BEC.”

Additional ongoing collaborations include companies such as Expedia, Kellogg’s, Procter & Gamble, and more. “We make it a point in our program to scope exciting, engaging projects that will attract students and deliver great results for the partners,” Adams said.

SOURCE: Lara Zielin