Degrees + Imagination at Work
General Electric Co. employs the insight of Penn College industrial and human factors design students to enhance its instruments.
Dressed for success, industrial and human factors design students, from left, Benjamin D. Rubinstein, Michael R. Perkins and Nicolas J. Krupka, prepare to present a product redesign to General Electric engineers and managers.
by Cindy Davis Meixel, writer/photo editor. All photos by Cindy Davis Meixel.
A pristine, white van decked with blue Pennsylvania College of Technology logos glides into the parking lot on the west side of the Klump Academic Center, and three young men dressed in dark suits, ties and shiny black shoes climb into the back. They juggle presentation boards and papers – and a whole lot of energy, despite the few hours of sleep they were each able to grab after staying up well past midnight in a college computer lab, subsisting on grapes and microwaved popcorn.
It’s May and three days before the start of finals week, but today is the big final for these seniors in the industrial and human factors design major. They’re bound for General Electric Co. to make a product presentation to company executives. Yet they don’t seem nervous.
Over the course of two semesters and several interactions, they’ve developed a sense of ease with their industry counterparts. Among the exchanges, the students and their faculty adviser have made a number of trips to GE Inspection Technologies in Lewistown and traveled – in a snowstorm – to the Boeing Co. near Philadelphia to conduct an ethnographic study with three of their GE “colleagues” – an engineer and two managers.
This is the second year seniors in Penn College’s industrial and human factors design major have devised product innovations for GE Inspection Technologies. The business manufactures nondestructive testing instruments that apply health care technologies to industrial applications. As an example, the company produces ultrasonic and radiographic equipment to inspect aircraft for manufacturing flaws or oil and gas pipes for corrosion. The singular focus underneath it all is public safety.
“I’m just excited! I’m ready to go!” belts Benjamin D. Rubinstein from the back seat of the van on this May morning. His enthusiasm stirs laughter from his classmates.
A Nanticoke native, Rubinstein landed at Penn College after his father, a traveling salesman, picked up a college brochure at a doughnut shop along Route 15 and took it home to his son.
“They worked hard, they worked smart, and they worked as a team.”
“I saw the industrial and human factors design description and immediately knew that was what I wanted to do,” he says. Graduates of the major incorporate qualities such as aesthetics, ergonomics and cultural preferences into technical product and system designs. “I was that kid who was always playing with Legos, building and drawing things – all that.”
Also in the van is Michael R. Perkins, a Clinton, New Jersey, resident who gravitated toward art classes while growing up and became a skilled custom painter in collision repair courses at his vocational-technical high school. He considered pursuing a degree in collision repair with a management emphasis until his uncle talked to him about graphic design and industrial design.
“I liked the idea of graphic design, but thought industrial design was even better,” Perkins said. “Industrial design is making art into an actual product you can use.”
Their classmate and GE design teammate Nicolas J. Krupka, from Allentown, picked Penn College because “there are only three schools with this major in the state.” Plus, he wanted to join the Wildcat golf team. Krupka regularly earned Penn State University Athletic Conference “All-Academic Team” honors, bestowed on student-athletes with a 3.0 GPA or better during competition seasons. He jokes that golf is his “back-up plan” if his design career doesn’t pan out.
Guiding the three in their industrial design endeavors and at the van’s steering wheel is Thomas E. Ask, professor of industrial and human factors design and adviser for the college’s Society of Inventors and Mad Scientists. He is also a licensed professional engineer and author of a book on marine surveying.
Ask is one of those “Renaissance” faculty members (there are a lot of them at Penn College) who holds a wide array of interests and abilities. He has taught at the college for 14 years, taking a sabbatical one semester to research boat design as a visiting professor of mechanical engineering at a university in Malaysia. He’s logged a great deal of personal and professional international travel, performing mission work in Honduras and Colombia numerous times and chaperoning Penn College honors students in Sweden, Latvia and Mexico. Add his volunteer work as an emergency medical technician and his enthusiasm for sailing, rock climbing, skiing and kite flying, and you have a fascinating faculty member who engages and inspires students on many levels.
“Tom Ask is largely the reason I’m at Penn College,” Rubinstein says. “When I visited the college with my parents, he talked to us for at least an hour.”
“He’s really hands-on with you,” Perkins says. “If you’re stuck on a project, he pushes you to be better.”
“He always pushes you to get a riskier design,” Rubinstein adds.
During Spring 2014, Ask guided industrial and human factors design seniors Cory D. Karges and Renee E. Smith as they crafted a design revision to a GE product. That new piece is set for production soon and, like the Spring 2015 design, is related to GE’s line of nondestructive testing instruments. Ask and all five students (now alumni) signed confidentiality agreements, and no specific details can be shared about the products prior to their release.
The Penn College-GE collaboration is the brainchild of Tara Merry, a GE senior product manager, strategic marketing and commercialization, based at the Lewistown facility, who decided to reach out to a college for some industrial design support for the Inspection Technologies division. She sought to enhance the company’s instruments with a design that incorporates ergonomics and a consistent brand look. After searching the Internet for industrial design programs, she contacted several colleges in Pennsylvania, New York and Germany and found Penn College – specifically Ask – to be the most responsive and enthusiastic to her idea.
“I was looking for a way to bring fresh eyes and perspective to our portfolio design via a mutually beneficial collaboration with an industrial design university program,” Merry explained. “Some of our engineers and product managers were a bit skeptical at first. Needless to say, the whole team has been absolutely thrilled with the results of the partnership. The students exhibit eagerness to learn about our customers and understand the applications. Their ideas demonstrate a healthy balance of creativity and functionality. I anticipate that our partnership will continue to grow and develop.”
For Ask, GE’s request was a perfect fit for his seniors’ “capstone” project, culminating the final semester of their Bachelor of Science degree.
“It’s very helpful to have commercial motivation for a design,” Ask said. “Students know the difference between textbook problems and real ones. Being challenged by GE to come up with a commercialized product adds grease to the educational grind. From a faculty standpoint, the collaboration underscores the importance of the material covered in our curriculum.”
The first year of the collaboration presented a steep learning curve.
“We had to fit into their culture,” Ask explained. “We needed to include the aesthetic, ergonomic and ethnographically rooted approaches into the technical solution, and we had to contend with various stakeholder requirements; different people want different things. We set up a project plan and we were able to follow it – an advantage of the rigid academic calendar!
“The second product had to contend with the great success of the first product. A high benchmark had been established. I think GE was optimistic about what we could do for them based on the first group’s work.”
Penn College students Nicolas J. Krupka, left photo, Michael R. Perkins, center, and Benjamin D. Rubinstein, right, employ a rapport developed over two semesters of interactions with GE staff as they present their proposed design.
The device the second design team tackled was physically larger than the object assigned to the first students, so there was more room for ergonomic and aesthetic development. The technical requirements of the piece presented challenges and a significant learning experience for the Spring 2015 semester.
“It’s easier to design a handbag or shoes or something that’s not a techy thing,” Rubinstein said. “It’s much harder to design an inspiring industrial design, but more rewarding, too – at least I think so.”
Teamwise, the students played to one another’s strengths and set their egos aside.
“And everyone put in their fair share,” Krupka said, “which is not always the case in group projects.”
When the going got tough, Ask said he and his students played pingpong, took walks and joked around to keep the long hours running smoothly.
“We had to work out the frustrations in hours, not days, and we had to pause and enjoy the process, too,” Ask said. “The students attended to myriad details from concepts to drawings. Because of the nature of these designs, the first half of the semester was getting information, and the last half was a hectic, fast-paced synthesizing that demanded much time and talent from the students.”
Krupka, Perkins and Rubinstein also worked on a smaller GE project during the Fall 2014 semester. They completed comprehensive research for the company related to the use of drone technologies. (As with the other projects, the information is confidential.)
“It wasn’t part of their capstone project,” Ask explained, “but we squeezed it into another studio course. It was a really cool design brief. It was the most interesting project I have been involved with at Penn College.”
That first assignment served as a great “warmup” to their full-scale proposal.
“I am a huge believer in the value of this for our products.”
When the trio finally step into the GE conference room, they are more than ready – and very eager – to present their final design. The four company executives and engineers in attendance are aware of some of the students’ intentions prior to the presentation, but the session still arrives with design surprises, followed by appreciation, accolades and a verbal agreement to manufacture the product.
“What you can do as college seniors is just astonishing to me,” says Timothy C. Humphrey, general manager-portable inspection products for GE Measurement & Control. “I was amazed the last time, and I’m amazed again at the quality of the work you do. Your ability to collect all the thoughts and inputs from our team and translate those into a great product design is astonishing. The designs present technical and manufacturing challenges that need to be solved, of course, but I am a huge believer in the value of this for our products.”
Although the drive to GE lacked any hint of tension, the ride back to campus proves different – on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. The students’ relief is palpable.
“It feels like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” Rubinstein says.
“I was ecstatic when they told us how much they liked it. It’s a time for celebration!”
“Working with GE is cool. Not a lot get to do that,” Krupka says.
“I brag about it a lot,” Rubinstein adds, laughing. “It’s cool to say we developed a product for GE that may be released in the future.”
After arriving back on campus, the seniors disperse, leaving a proud professor time to reflect.
“I’m proud of what the students accomplished,” Ask says. “They worked hard, they worked smart, and they worked as a team. It’s a shame to see some of these strong teams break up after graduation. They’re great students, and I’m confident that they will do well.” ■
What do they do?
Industrial and human factors designers create products that are optimized for human use, from medical devices and tools to furniture and automobiles. In addition to material and technological considerations, industrial designers incorporate nonfunctional elements, such as aesthetics and culturally relevant features, as seen in many consumer products ranging from toys to cell phones. Penn College’s industrial and human factors design major is an interdisciplinary study of design that integrates aesthetics, ergonomics, kinesiology, anthropometry, materials science, engineering, manufacturing, business and the social sciences.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for commercial and industrial designers was $62,370 in May 2013.