Engineering students solar powered invention earns national honor

June 17, 2013

From “CVTC team’s winning invention makes kids’ bikes more visible” — Bob Grzegorek watched the taillights on the bicycle his 12-year-old son was riding move further away into the darkness.

He saw the lights brighten as the boy applied the brakes, then return to normal brightness, still visible 200 feet away.

Grzegorek knew then that the product he and his fellow team members from the Chippewa Valley Technical College chapter of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers developed was a good one.

“It’s about safety for the kids. This might save a life,” Grzegorek said of the bicycle brake lights the team created.

Grzegorek isn’t the only one who likes the product.

“We had a team of 12 engineers looking at this and they all thought it was a great idea,” he said.

That judging team awarded the CVTC team second place in the 2013 SME Student Design Manufacturing Competition at the SME International Conference in Baltimore, Md., earlier this month.

The product, called the Solar Brake Assembly, gives a bicycle rear taillights and brake lights that work like those on a car or motorcycle. The lights are powered by two AA rechargeable batteries that are automatically charged by a solar panel mounted on the rear of the bicycle. LED lights ensure plenty of brightness with little power used. A mere four hours of daylight fully recharges the batteries.

Engineers at the conference said the solar brake assembly is certainly marketable, perhaps patentable. Where the product goes from here is uncertain. For now, team members, which include electromechanical engineering students Grzegorek, Adam Clark, Benjamin Paffel and Jon Keeley, and manufacturing engineering student Scott Steenerson, are thrilled to have done so well.

“I told the guys, even if we didn’t place, we’re still winners, no matter what,” Grzegorek said.

The team finished second to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, but ahead of PEC University of Technology in Chandigarh, India; Wichita State University in Kansas, and the University of Colorado. CVTC was the only two-year school in the competition.

The genesis for the CVTC entry was a trip to the SME International Conference in Cleveland last year, where 10 college teams took part in the contest. CVTC SME Chapter Advisor Tom Vanderloop encouraged his students to give it a try.

Grzegorek was on that trip and started brainstorming right away. The team was formed last fall.

“The team wanted to try something outside their experience with a focus on safety and renewable energy. Our original idea was an electric scooter, but we realized we would not have a budget large enough, or the time to completely manufacture our own design, not to mention the wide commercial availability (of electric scooters) we discovered upon early research,” Grzegorek said.

It was Grzegorek’s idea to narrow the concept to the brake and tail light assembly. Other team members contributed their ideas, and soon the team was designing a printed circuit board for a solar recharging system.

The target market was children’s bicycles, but team members thought it would work just as well for adult bicycles and electric-powered mobility devices often used by elderly people.

“The team researched the idea at a local bicycle business and found that the concept had not yet been explored,” Grzegorek said.

Each team member contributed in his own way.

“I got to do a lot of the soldering,” Paffel said. “This was a new experience for me, since I’m just out of (Eau Claire North) High School.”

“I helped design the circuits and selected what parts we used,” Clark said.

One of the most challenging aspects students encountered was finding time to work together outside of class. Team members have families at home and jobs outside of school.

“It was just amazing how they put everything together and worked as a team,” Vanderloop said.

The team received important contributions from community resources. CVTC nanotechnology instructor Hans Mickelson helped develop a photo circuit board for solar power. Kurt Carlson, a CVTC nanotechnician with an English background, helped with written work. And Jason Ming of Dimension X Design, a thermoform services company in Altoona, developed a means of showing judges how the product would look presented at a retail store.

Such efforts impressed the judges, as did the team’s presentation focusing on safety and saving lives. Engineers at the conference asked team members what they planned to do with their invention. Grzegorek has heard obtaining a patent is a long, expensive process and there would be some question as to who would own the patent.

“We’d like to market the idea to a company,” Grzegorek said.

If there is any money to be made from their endeavor, team members said they would like to see it go toward people like themselves, perhaps in the form of an SME scholarship fund. Team members likely won’t get rich from the invention, not directly anyway. Still, their efforts appear to have resulted in a boost for their personal careers.

Students’ work made a positive impression on conference attendees, Vanderloop said.

“These guys were offered opportunities for work a number of times,” he said. “Guys came up to them and said ‘When you guys graduate, I want to see your resume.’ ”

The sustainability focus of the contest fit in well with Clark’s plans.

“I’d like to make a contribution at a factory with a good culture of sustainability,” he said.



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