Budding student engineers from Trinity College Dublin were recently in Stanford University as Ireland’s only representatives at a global design innovation network showcase.
The engineers presented high-quality and fully functional prototypes they had created to help solve societal problems at an event that brought together teams from 16 world-leading universities spanning five continents.
The engineers had all completed the Innovation in Product Development course at Trinity that seeks to provide them with invaluable international collaborative experience at the interface of design, engineering and business. It is hoped that such skills will help create Ireland’s innovators of tomorrow.
Each year, Trinity’s teams work on a diverse portfolio of projects with international partners that provide innovative solutions to the needs of different industries, across both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. This year’s sponsors included a large multinational software company, an Irish SME that makes agricultural machinery, and not-for-profit charities in the healthcare sector.
Assistant Professor in Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at Trinity, Kevin Kelly, said: “Innovation is not alchemy – there are tools and techniques out there that are proven. When you want to be the best, you look to the best, and in innovation that is Silicon Valley. As Ireland’s leading university, we should be setting our goals high, and that is what we’re doing by collaborating with Stanford University. International collaboration is a key feature of modern industry, and indeed academia, and we see the benefits of that kind of collaboration garnered by our students and delivered in the innovative output in their projects. It is hard work for the students, but ultimately very rewarding to respond to real user needs by designing and creating real functional products.”
One of this year’s teams addressed the challenge of helping people with intellectual disability better integrate into society. Working with their end users, the team discovered that navigation and way-finding present significant challenges for people with intellectual disability, and for their carers.
Their solution comprised a smartphone app connected to a smart-watch, which gave simple, easy-to-follow directions through the smart-watch and, optionally, through earphones to the user. The carers’ app meanwhile receives live updates on the position of the user and their destination, and also monitors their heartrate (important in detecting anxiety).
Auveen Bell, co-founder of children's charity BlossomIreland, said: “I heard, almost by accident, about the Wayfinder app that one of Kevin's student teams had developed. I thought 'Wow! – We have to talk about this' as I could immediately see the potential. In BlossomIreland, we provide camps and after-school activities for children with intellectual disability (ID), and as the mother of a child with ID I could visualise straight away the difference it could make to the independence of these young people while giving their parents and carers some peace of mind.”
She added: “As an engineer myself I was always aware of the general potential to create products that make a difference, but to see this kind of innovation being developed by a team of students during their studies was very impressive. They’ve really understood the needs of people with ID and then taken their idea all the way to a functioning product. We certainly didn't do that sort of thing when Kevin and I were in university! We’re looking forward to trying out the product during the summer.”
Another of the teams partnered with the Swinburne University of Technology (Melbourne, Australia) on a project sponsored by a Japanese company called BeatRobo that challenged the team to imagine the future of personal identification and security. With Trinity having hosted the Swinburne staff and students in January, the entire global team came together in Stanford on the 3rd June to present their prototype to an international audience at the global design showcase organised by the SUGAR network.
Their solution – ‘AirVerify’ – incorporates multi-factor authentication through the user of fingerprint scanning and wireless ‘tags’ allowing workplace users to easily and securely access buildings and rooms, and interact with their computer and workspace environment (e.g. filing cabinets, drawers) without the use of passwords. The tags can be incorporated in a card or wearable device (such as jewellery).
At the design showcase, following a presentation of the concept to the audience, attendees were invited to try out the fully-functional prototype, implemented in a full scale mocked-up office environment. Users could take their choice of card, or wearable device and interact with their office environment – logging onto their computers and favourite websites, and unlocking their desk drawers through a simple waving of the card/wearable over a scanner embedded within the desk surface. Securing their workspace when leaving was just as simple. Visitors to the stand were certainly impressed with the technology and relieved to know that it wasn’t just them who were frustrated with password overload and security/authentication directives from their IT managers!
Commenting on the experience, Professor Kelly said: “Even after years of coming to this event, it is always stimulating and invigorating to see the energy and creativity that each cohort of students brings. The repeated presence of so many companies here is testament to the quality of ideas and graduates that are coming through this program in the global university network.”
“Working with a globally dispersed, culturally and academically diverse team on an open-ended problem is a completely new experience for most students, but it is increasingly important and relevant in the most innovative companies in the world. For the individual students here today, it is a chance to see what their peers have developed and to receive the feedback and praise from their peers and industry – it is easy for them to lose sight of just how far they’ve come as they’ve lived this reality 24/7 for the last few months!
“It is also really exciting to hear from the other teaching teams and company sponsors to hear of progress of last year’s projects – several of which are now well into the commercial pipeline.”
Irish Independent Business, June 1