Eau Claire, WI - Bob Grzegorek watched the taillights on the bicycle his 12-year-old son was riding move further away in the darkness. He saw the lights brighten as the boy applied the brakes, then return to normal brightness, still visible 200 feet away.
Grzegorek knew then that the product he and his fellow team members from the Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC) chapter of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) developed was a good one.
“It’s about safety for the kids. This might save a life,” Grzegorek said. He isn’t the only one who likes the product. “We had a team of 12 engineers looking at this, and they all thought it was a great idea.” That judging team awarded the CVTC team second place in the 2013 SME Student Design Manufacturing Competition at the SME International Conference in Baltimore, Md., earlier this month.
The product, called the Solar Brake Assembly, gives a bicycle rear taillights and brake lights that work like those on a car or motorcycle. The lights are powered by two AA rechargeable batteries, which are automatically recharged by a solar panel mounted on the rear of the bicycle. The LED lights ensure plenty of brightness with little power used. A mere four hours of daylight fully recharges the batteries.
Engineers at the conference said the Solar Brake Assembly is certainly marketable, perhaps patentable. Where the product goes from here is uncertain. For now, the team members, which include Electromechanical Engineering students Grzegorek, Adam Clark, Benjamin Paffel and Jon Keeley, and Manufacturing Engineering student Scott Steenerson, are thrilled to have done so well.
“I told the guys, even if we didn’t place, we’re still winners, no matter what,” Grzegorek said.
The team finished second to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, but ahead of PEC University of Technology in Chandigarh, India; Wichita State University in Kansas, and the University of Colorado. CVTC was the only two-year school in the competition.
The genesis for the CVTC entry into the contest was a trip to the SME International Conference in Cleveland last year, where 10 college teams took part in the contest.
CVTC SME Chapter Advisor Tom Vanderloop encouraged his students to give it a try.
Grzegorek was on that trip and started brainstorming right away. The team was formed last fall.
“The team wanted to try something outside their experience with a focus on safety and renewable energy. Our original idea was an electric scooter, but we realized we would not have a budget large enough, or the time to completely manufacture our own design, not to mention the wide commercial availability (of electric scooters) we discovered upon early research,” Grzegorek said.
It was Grzegorek’s idea to narrow the concept to the brake and tail light assembly. Other team members contributed their ideas, and soon the team was designing a printed circuit board for a solar recharging system.
The target market was children’s bicycles, but they thought it would work just as well for adult bicycles, and even the electric-powered mobility devises often used by elderly people.
“The team researched the idea at a local bicycle business and found that the concept had not yet been explored,” Grzegorek said.
Each member of the team contributed in his own way. “I got to do a lot of the soldering. This was a new experience for me, since I’m just out of (Eau Claire North) High School,” said Paffel.
“I helped design the circuits and selected what parts we used,” said Clark.
One of the most challenging aspects was finding time to work together outside of class, since team members have families at home, and jobs outside of school.
“It was just amazing how they put everything together and worked as a team,” said Vanderloop. The team got some important contributions from community resources. CVTC Nanotechnology Instructor Hans Mickelson helped in the development of the photo circuit board for the solar power. Kurt Carlson, a CVTC nano-technician with a background studying English, helped with the written work.
Jason Ming of Dimension X Design, a thermoform services company in Altoona, developed a blister package for the team to show the judges how the product would look presented at a retail store.
Such efforts impressed the judges, as did the team’s presentation focusing on safety and saving lives. Engineers at the conference asked them what they planned to do with their invention. Grzegorek has heard that getting a patent is a long, expensive process and there would be some question as to who would own the patent.
“We’d like to market the idea to a company,” Grzegorek said.
If there is any money to be made, the team would like to see it help people like them, like contributing to the already-existing SME scholarship fund. The team members will not be getting personally rich off the invention, not directly anyway. Still, their efforts appear to have resulted in a good boost for their personal careers.
The sustainability focus of the contest fit in well with Clark’s plans. “I’d like to make a contribution at a factory with a good culture of sustainability,” he said.
“These guys were offered opportunities for work a number of times,” Vanderloop said. “Guys came up to them and said ‘when you guys graduate, I want to see your resume.’”
“General Motors tried to recruit us, and Knuth Machine Tool out of Illinois wanted to see our resumes,” said Paffel.