Leadership and LEGOs

MIT Hosts UTC Design Challenge

By Monica Nakamine
September 10, 2001

What do LEGOs have to do with systems engineering and leadership?

During the week of August 13, 2001, a dozen engineers from UTC found out by participating in the MIT-UTC Design Challenge – a friendly "competition" where two teams were charged with designing and building a functional robot out of assorted LEGO parts. The purpose of this exercise was to make participants aware of system integration issues — learning how to collaborate as a unit, assigning tasks to the right people, and creatively tackling a technical problem – all within a short time span.

The Design Challenge was part of the MIT-UTC Systems Engineering Project Workshop, a weeklong event specifically for UTC employees to become familiar with SDM’s knowledge base on systems engineering and leadership. This program is part of a larger MIT-UTC educational partnership created to help UTC build a systems engineering competency across its business units.

During class, participants attended workshops and demonstrations. After hours, each team collaborated amongst its respective members to come up with a design that would fulfill the requirements of this rigorous challenge. In this case, the robots were to simulate a biohazard recovery operation. What specifically did they need to do?

"This project really forced us to look at the whole process, take all of our [professional] experiences and work as a cohesive team," said Steve Chisarik, project engineer at Sikorsky-UTC in Stratford, Conn., who was also a member of the winning team. "Knowing what skills to have upfront is critical. It was an excellent learning experience."

Thursday afternoon (August 16), each team revealed their design to the other team, the SDM faculty and staff. Presentations were given to visually display the thought processes of each team, how they weighed the advantages and disadvantages of the various design schemes they considered, and finally, how they were going to execute their mission.

Ben Koo, SDM ’00, a research engineer at the United Technologies Research Center, helped to coordinate the Design Challenge and set up a course through which the robots had to travel. The robots had to detect where the hazardous waste was (or, in this case, a small can of tomato sauce), lift it, and transport it back to the point of entry. According to Koo, the main issues that both teams faced were the lack of software development experience and skill distribution.

"All of the participating engineers told me that this exercise gave them an extremely condensed version of integrated product development," said Koo, who participated in the Design Challenge as an instructor/coordinator. "They also realized that this is part of the strategy to enforce an opportunity to develop interpersonal relationships. From my personal observation, the implementation of robots and the development of the presentation happen in parallel. This gave them a perfect opportunity to reflect upon and summarize what they learned."

Team 1 succeeded in completing the challenge by using what they called their Alpha Prototype, which used the "blind man" procedure. Essentially, the robot used a pivoting guide arm attached to a microswitch to "sense" the inner walls of the course, similar to how a blind man might "feel" his way around a room. It was then programmed to maneuver itself to assess where the can was located in the offshoot (or vaults) of the course, position itself to retrieve the can, and then lower the magnet to lift and transport it out. Team 1 also installed various audio signals as a way for the robot to communicate with the controller when it located Vault No. 1 (Darth Vader Entrance Theme), for instance, or salt water along the path (Popeye the Sailor Man).

Although Team 2 was unable to get their robot to function, they presented their data, their decisions, and their learnings. Both teams agreed that despite all of their engineering know-how they had overlooked or underestimated the fact that software was an essential ingredient.

"Previously, I never understood what the big deal was with software," said Philip Love, senior technical engineer at Sikorsky-UTC. "What I got an appreciation for here was the software requirements definition and development. It drove the hardware development. It goes both ways – push and pull. You’ve got to take care of the software with the hardware. That really brought it home for me. I have a new respect for software development."

Out of this experience came unexpected insights that revolved around the need to use the expertise and talent that others have for the benefit of the entire team. Participants learned that a successful team understands the value of each of its players and how best to utilize them to move progressively forward.

"It also teaches you something about humility," added Bill Lamberti, manager of the Systems Analysis Integration department at Pratt & Whitney, and one of Love’s teammates.