How to Succeed in the Student Design Competition

(By really trying!)

Or--Some words of advice from the Student Design Competition Organizers!

The ASME Student Design Competition is an excellent opportunity for you to exercise your new engineering skills, have some fun, impress student colleagues and come to the attention of industry representatives and recruiters. For many of you it is also the means for satisfying one of your graduation requirements.

As organizers, we want you to succeed at your design task! A device which does not perform at the contest is a disappointment to everyone (even though occasionally the failures have been very entertaining). These suggestions are offered here for your consideration, and to help you have a successful contest experience.

Read them at your peril!

(1) Obtain a Mentor. We strongly recommend that each team recruit a practicing design engineer from a local ASME Section. These mentors can provide a great wealth of advice and experience to you. Often students have limited experience managing teams, budgets, schedules and the like. A mentor with years of experience in the "real world" would be an invaluable team asset. If you would like our help in recruiting a mentor just click here and send a brief message describing how best to contact you. It may be advantageous to find a mentor at a local company who can offer you technical advice and possible funding.

(2) Get a team together. These design problems are intended for a team of 2 to 4 students to work on. If you plan to try doing it all yourself be prepared to do a lot of work. Also, most problems involve at least some technical background normally found in the junior and senior level courses, so you want at least some of your team to be upper-classmen or upper-classwomen.

(3) Start Early. It takes a lot of time to design, build, test, rebuild, test, fix, test.... Probably if you estimate the time you think you will need then double it you will be coming close. Triple your estimated time and you are most likely there. Note: If you estimate wrong and finish early there is no penalty. If you finish late, however, you are out of the contest. Starting too late on the project probably causes more failures at the contest than anything else. See the suggested schedule below.

(4) Start working on at least two approaches in the early design stages. Don't grab the first working idea you get and run with it. Make yourself think about other possible approaches.

(5) Build in adjustments. Do you have a critical dimension, such as a belt centerline distance? Or a problem aligning a motor with what it must drive? Build such things as belt tensioning pulleys, slotted screw holes for adjustment, flexible couplings, etc. Remember that dimensions and lengths can change with temperature, moisture, time, etc. Can you correct for these changes with easy, quick, last-minute adjustments?

(6) Test and Test and Test. Once you have a working device your next assignment is to find out what makes it NOT work. Can you quickly and repeatedly disassemble it and reassemble it and have it still work? Does it work on all floor or test surfaces? What happens if (or when) it gets dropped? Could someone not on your design team make your device work without help from you (other than general operating instructions)?

(7) Reliability here is the name of the game, and it only comes about from testing and modifying. Don't allow yourself to "baby" your design to get it to work! If your device does not work without tender care and careful adjustment it probably will not work at the contest. Remember, if it works 4 out of 5 times when you try to complete the given task there is only a 64% chance that it will work for both runs at the contest (unless something happens in the first run which influences the result of the second run)! In other words, there is a one-in-three chance that you will fail at the contest. To have a 95% chance of making both runs at the contest your device needs to succeed 97.5% of the times you press the start button--or about 48 out of 50 times. In these contests a reliable device which operates at moderate speed almost always beats a semi-reliable device which is blazingly fast.

(8) Turn your development device into a finished product. Once you have gotten all the bugs out of your device using a developmental or "breadboard" model it is time to put together the final device for the contest. At this time you should clean up wiring and other loose ends. Aside from purely aesthetic grounds, for example, neat cabled wiring with good connectors is more reliable than a lot of loose wires with "point-to-point" wiring. Remember that your colleagues and possible future employers will be looking at your device and forming an opinion of you from what they see.

(9) Make sure you test the finished product. Does it really work like the development model? (Answer: Probably not quite. There were probably some things which you did not think important about the breadboard model which turned out to be necessary to proper function of the device. So you need to allow some additional testing and fixing time here for the finished product.)

Schedule suggestions

Designing and building anything takes TIME! Ideas take a while to germinate. Parts, materials, and other supplies take time to get, particularly if they must be ordered from out of town. It takes time to machine parts. It takes time for adhesives to set up or paints to dry. It takes time to test, and time to think about and find the true reasons why your device did not work as expected. It takes time to modify the device and test again.

This process cannot be compressed into a few frantic days and nights. "Overnighters" and heroic last-minute efforts are notoriously unproductive in working on a contest like this. It is much better to work on the project for a few hours at a time every few days over a couple of months.

The following schedule assumes that you start the project at the beginning of the Spring semester (mid-January for most US schools) and you need to complete it for your SPDC. Except for Region XIII The SPDC's are scheduled in late March or in April. So a ten-week schedule should allow everyone to finish in time. And if you start earlier you can have more time. You should make up your own detailed schedule. And then you need to stick to it!! If you fall behind your schedule the remedy is heroic efforts to get back on schedule, not to revise the schedule!!

With these caveats, here is a very generic suggested schedule:

Week 1

  • Find members and form teams
  • Read and study problem statement and existing "Questions and Answers"
  • Ask any clarifying questions of the organizing committee

Week 2

  • Generate ideas for solving the problem (at least two approaches)

Week 3

  • Do any simple tests and/or calculations necessary to prove that your design concept will work
  • Begin detailed design work

Week 4

  • Complete design work and draw up parts to be made (with dimensions).  Order parts and materials

Week 5

  • Build prototype device

Week 6

  • Finish building prototype device and start testing

Week 7

  • Test prototype device and modify device as test results come in
  • Order parts and supplies you may need for final construction

Week 8

  • Finish testing prototype device and draw up final device design
  • Order parts and supplies not anticipated before this

Week 9

  • Build final device

Week 10

  • Test final device, modify as necessary
  • Organize tools, materials and supplies for contest

More tips and advice can be found in the following presentation.

Good luck! See you at the competition with an outstanding device!!