It seemed like soccer — football — was everywhere in December. The World Cup is the most watched sporting event in the world, attracting viewership from billions of people every four years.
Yet, despite advances in training, technique, and the ability to have half of the Earth’s population watching a single game at the same time, ‘the beautiful game’ has remained remarkably similar to its original form, which is believed to go back thousands of years.
Inspired by the World Cup and the topic of innovation in sports, one team of Duke undergraduates decided that the game was due for a bit of innovation.
They were students enrolled in the Fall 2022 semester of Product Design one of five student teams tasked with the challenge of creating a “novel smart fitness device.”
Dedicated to the idea of incorporating “smart fitness” into soccer, the team decided to spend the semester building a smart soccer goal post. They retrofitted a goal post with lasers and photoresistors to detect the exact speed and position at which the ball passes through the goal and report the results in a user-friendly computer interface. The motivation behind this device was to provide a tool that helps amateur and professional soccer players hone their scoring skills with precise, real-time data.
Over the course of the semester, the team brainstormed, conceptualized, designed, and built a high-fidelity, working prototype of their product, eventually culminating in an end-of-semester product trade show.
The Product Design course, created just over one year ago by Dr. Rebecca Simmons, is intended to provide another opportunity for students to take a class focused on team-based, open-ended design. The class aims to “expand students’ designing under constraint skills,” explains Simmons, a widely beloved professor of mechanical engineering for undergraduates.
Students work in small groups of 4-5, usually a mix of mechanical and electrical engineers, to conceptualize, design, prototype, build, and test a product over the course of one semester. The only constraints are a budget of $1,000, and a theme that varies from semester to semester. In the past the theme has been “smart kitchen,” “smart transportation,” and, this semester, “smart fitness.”
Undergraduate engineers partner with graduate students in Engineering Management (Managing Product Design, an advanced topics class taught by Dr. Gregory Twiss). While the undergraduate engineers focus on designing and building, the graduate students learn about the management side of developing a product (business, marketing, customer analysis, and more). While previously just open to mechanical engineering students, in Fall 2022 the class expanded to include ECE students and ECE professor Dr. Tyler Bletsch.
Creating novel smart technology is always a daunting task, but it adds a whole new layer of complexity when the device you’re creating has to be kicked, hit, or otherwise struck with heavy objects.
For LaserF, the group developing the smart soccer goal, the class certainly fulfilled the promise of providing a learning experience that was challenging and rigorous. The project encountered numerous obstacles from beginning to end, according to team members Lelia Jennings (ME ‘23) and Jake Mann (ME ‘23). Brainstorming an idea, meeting the budget constraints, coordinating with the graduate team, and working within the rules of the on-campus makerspaces were all constant challenges. One of the most comical moments, according to Lelia, occurred on the very day of the trade show.
For most of the year, the Fitzpatrick atrium looks like a quiet, ordinary, empty space. A pretty space to study and pass through on your way to class, but otherwise unremarkable. During the end of the semester, however, it transforms into one of the busiest spots on campus. The atrium becomes the site of several poster fairs and project presentations that represent the culmination of a semester’s worth of hard work for numerous classes, clubs, and independent studies. One such event is the Product Design trade show.
After months of work, LaserF finally found themselves in the buzzing atrium, ready for the show. After setting up all their complex parts, the product was ready for the first test throw in the final, real working environment. One of the grad students volunteered for the premiere kick-off.
After a tense countdown, the student kicked the ball… and launched it directly into the crossbar of the goal, knocking it back, and sending every laser out of misalignment. Luckily, as Lelia recalls, the team was all “so sleep deprived, we just started laughing.” With a few minutes to spare before the beginning of the show, they were able to recalibrate their device in time.
One more notable theme arose when a new idea was tossed out in the weekly class meeting: what about weatherproofing? Admittedly, the team had not thought about it. Thinking on the fly, one team member jokingly posed solving the problem with “a well-placed piece of tape.” As the weeks went by, weatherproofing still never managed to make it up the list of priorities. Turning to the professor for advice as the tradeshow approached, the suggestion that came back was perhaps using some well-placed pieces of tape after all. “It’s funny how priorities change with time,” said Jake Mann.
In a class of 25 students, LaserF was not the only group to overcome significant challenges to produce a remarkable final product. The team Aelevate created an accessory that turns any bicycle into a stationary bike, providing variable resistance, and adjustable inclines. Revfit created a boxing device integrated with lights and sounds to create a fun boxing workout that evokes the competitive spirit of an arcade game. Gear Guroo created a device that attaches onto bicycles and recommends the optimal bike gear. Lastly, AutoSpot created an automatic spotter device for a bench press. It uses a hydraulic press to lift a barbell away from the chest when failure is detected.
Overall, the tradeshow was a tremendous success. All of the students in the class, many of whom have already taken it twice, resoundingly recommend it to fellow engineering students.
Eva Jacobsthal, a member of the AutoSpot team, appreciates that the class “allows students to have complete ownership over the development process – you are able to demonstrate your creativity and knowledge base while gaining hands-on experience.” Another student notes that the course feels like “an extracurricular that counts for academic credit.”
Simmons said the best part of the class is the students who take it, noting “the curiosity, dedication, perseverance and excitement of the students is really reflected in the innovative and high-quality final designs.” The class, next offered in Fall 2023, comes highly recommended to any graduate or undergraduate engineering students who may be interested in product design.
Lastly, the class serves as a reminder to always take the long way through the Fitzpatrick atrium when the end of the semester rolls around – you never know what exciting trade show or product fair you might step into.
Post by Kyla Hunter, Class of 2023