“It’s all about the process,” says Warren Seering, a professor of mechanical engineering. He's referring to his spring class, Course 2.739 (Product Design and Development).
“We want 2.739 students to leave with a set of methods readily available to them to use at whatever stage they are at in the development process,” he says. “This is their introduction to a much more structured approach to developing new products.”
The students experience that structure first-hand as they design and develop a new product throughout the semester in teams of six to eight. Each team consists of at least one engineering student, one MIT Sloan School of Management student, and one student from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) — which partners with MIT for the class.
The benefit of bringing together students from different backgrounds — engineering, business, and industrial design — represents the students’ first real-world lesson, Seering says: learning how to value and collaborate with contributors from various disciplines as they develop a successful product together.
“At last year’s final presentation of products, I played a game with one of the reviewers to see if they could guess which school each student was from — School of Engineering, [MIT] Sloan School of Management, or RISD,” Seering says. “It was difficult for them. By the end, it’s not so easy to tell the difference. And that’s what we want. It means that the students have really learned from each other.”
The class meets twice a week at MIT for lectures from MIT and RISD professors — Steven Eppinger, the General Motors LGO Professor of Management at MIT, and RISD professor Matt Kressy co-teach the class with Seering — followed by a hands-on lab. Lab time focuses on developing a new product, a process that must include consumer research, design, prototyping, financial planning, marketing, testing, and a final presentation of the manufactured prototype.
“The mechanical engineers work out feasibility and production methods, but we also want them to learn how to do the parts that the other team members do too,” Seering says. “We want them to be able to interact with those types of people in an enlightened way. Because it’s a big group, they have to help one another or they won’t get it done.”
“Working with a team from diverse and unique backgrounds was an amazing experience,” says MIT mechanical engineering student Stephanie Scott, who took the class in spring 2013. “Occasionally team members disagreed on approach. Students with different backgrounds tended to prioritize different parts of the product. We worked together to explore tradeoffs of different approaches, and that process ultimately led to the development of a more successful product.”
The final presentations take place at RISD and MIT in alternating years and are presented in front of an audience, as well as a board of reviewers. The students are judged on the market value of their product idea, their justification for the market opportunity, the quality of the prototype, and the effectiveness of their presentation. Before the presentation, groups often patent their products; some even pursue manufacturing and sales positions once the class ends.
This year's final presentations, held at MIT, showcased products that solve real consumer problems, including a solar-powered tailgating shelter, an infant pulse oximeter, a heated ice scraper, a keyless bike lock, a personal measurement system, and a pollution-filtering scarf.
“Even with 10 years of industry experience in manufacturing, I didn’t have product design on my radar at all prior to taking this class,” says MIT alumnus David McCalib MEng ’13, who just started his new position as design engineer at Amazon. “But now I’m always thinking about it and have more tools than I ever did before. It was like training wheels for product development. Now we have the confidence to do it ourselves.”