Mechanical Engineering Design for Complex Environments: Incorporating Industrial Design Perspectives into a Multidisciplinary Capstone Design Project

Contributing USMA Research Unit(s)

Center for Innovation and Engineering, Civil and Mechanical Engineering

Publication Date

Summer 6-23-2018

Publication Title

American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference

Document Type

Conference Proceeding


The rapid pace of global communications development coupled with an unprecedented

increase in technological advancement has increased the need for multi-disciplinary teams to

solve the complex engineering problems of the future. The well-structured, multi-part

‘complicated’ problems of the past have transformed into the interdependent, multi-part

‘complex’ problems of today and the future. These problems prevent one person or disciplinaryspecific

group from having the requisite knowledge and skills to solve the problem

independently. ABET acknowledges this reality by requiring undergraduate engineering

programs demonstrate the ability of their students to work within a multi-disciplinary team upon

graduation. Faculty may be challenged to meet this requirement because of a lack of sufficiently

complex problems that may require a multi-disciplinary approach. One such problem was a

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsored project that asked West Point

cadets to design a system that would sustain SquadX in a dense urban combat environment for

up to 72 hours. A multi-disciplinary team of Mechanical Engineering, Systems Engineering,

Engineering Management, and Defense Strategic Studies students embarked on this design

challenge during the 2017-2018 academic year. The team quickly realized the need to better

understand the dense urban operating environment. To remedy this gap, the faculty at West

Point collaborated with the Industrial Design department at the Rhode Island School of design

(RISD) to create an intensive, two-day experience that allowed both West Point cadets and RISD

students the opportunity to better understand the challenges associated with a dense urban

operating environment and military operations more generally.

The purpose of this paper is to describe an intensive, two-day design experience conducted

by faculty and students from West Point and RISD. This session brought together cadets

assigned to a DARPA-sponsored SquadX urban sustainment project and students from the

Design, Culture and Global Security course at RISD in Providence, Rhode Island. The students

from both institutions were divided into five separate teams aligned with the preliminary

functional decomposition of systems to be designed. After a preliminary orientation and team

formation meeting the night prior, the teams spent a total of five hours collecting data around the

city of Providence, synthesizing the results of the data collection, and presenting their work to

the larger group. An analysis of student feedback from the experience shows that despite initial

ambivalence or assumptions of unhelpfulness regarding the potential benefits of the multidisciplinary

collaboration, students gained some unique insights. Students were exposed to

various design perspectives, a fresh perspective of their design challenge, and described the

experience as ‘eye-opening’. The overall success of this experience provided the faculty a desire

to further refine the relationship between RISD and West Point, to allow continued collaboration

on future complex design problems.

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