Senior capstone team helps business navigate engineering challenge
Tricia Salcido had a problem.
As CEO of Philomath, Oregon-based Softstar Shoes – which makes “minimal” shoes, designed to allow natural, “barefoot-like” movement – she holds the quality of her company’s product paramount. When she identified an inconsistency in the manufacturing process that could lead to soles detaching over time, she needed a solution.
Luckily, answers lay just a few miles down the road, at Oregon State University.
Since 2009, Softstar has sponsored student capstone design projects at the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering. Capstone design is a two-course sequence in which seniors design and implement workable solutions to real-world problems.
“Capstone provides our graduating seniors the chance to apply their newly learned toolsets by working from start to finish on a project similar to one they may see after graduation,” said Jeff Hoffman, the senior instructor who leads the capstone class. “This kind of experience is designed to help them transition from student to working professional.”
Many of the projects are sponsored by companies in Oregon. For this year, Softstar’s seventh with the program, Salcido tasked a multidisciplinary group of students – industrial engineering major Christopher Houck, mechanical engineering major Michael Klopfenstein, and manufacturing engineering major Ruiqing Li – with designing improvements in the process for gluing the soles.
Softstar uses pneumatic presses to attach soles to the leather uppers of its shoes. (Click to view a demonstration of the press.) The company has known for some time that the pressure exerted is a key factor in the strength of the bond. However, workers lacked a reliable way to measure that pressure.
“I wanted the students to find an effective, value-based way to keep variables in control,” Salcido said.
Part of the challenge for the student team lay in establishing the scope of the project.
“Ideally, you would like to come into the project and just know everything that you’re going to do beforehand,” said Houck. “But realistically, the reason you’re taking on a problem like this is because no one has a complete set of knowledge.”
The team got to work. They implemented a force sensor and designed experiments to test the accuracy of the press. Through repeated tests, they discovered that process control improves when the offset height at the press is fixed and the pressure is varied based on the type of shoe. This was exactly the opposite of the company’s original procedures.
Through research, data analysis, and consultation with experts, the team learned more about factors affecting the process, and ultimately arrived at clear suggestions to improve process control.
“We gave them five key recommendations that they can implement in a practical, low-cost way,” said Klopfenstein. “They were very responsive. And it was a really positive response.”
Salcido was impressed with the work, saying she hopes to implement some of the team’s suggestions. But she was also impressed by how the team worked.
“They were interested in learning what they could,” she said. “The team was diligent, made appointments, went through their work, and got the job done.”
The team members learned from each other too.
“I learned a lot from Michael and Chris,” said Li. “As an engineer, working together to do more things than you can do alone is important.”
Capstone teams often consist of students in the same discipline, but in this case, a multidisciplinary team proved to be better suited for this particular challenge.
“It also represents the multidisciplinary nature of industry,” said Hoffman, the capstone instructor.
Capstone sponsorship is a two-way relationship that promises significant returns on a company’s relatively small investment. In addition to finding solutions to engineering challenges, participation can raise an organization’s visibility at Oregon State, leading to stronger working relationships with faculty and a recruitment pipeline for future employees.
“From a business perspective, it’s worth it,” Salcido said. “Students are part of our community, and to be able to invest in them is a win-win.”
If you are interested in learning more about capstone projects, contact Jeff Hoffman (email@example.com).
By Owen Perry