Montana State University

MSU students earn second place in national engineering competition

October 28, 2013 -- MSU News Service

A team of Montana State University industrial engineering students – (from left) Nate Powell, Colter Schilling, Joe Johnson, and Molly Martin – took second place in the national Materials Handling Student Design Competition for the 2012-13 academic year. The result, which was announced in October, marks the second time in three years that MSU has finished in the top three for the competition, which is sponsored by College Industry Council on Material Handling Education. Photo courtesy of MSU’s Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department.   High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN – Four students from Montana State University’s College of Engineering were awarded a second-place finish recently in the national Materials Handling Student Design Competition.

The result marks the second time in three years that MSU has finished in the top three for the national competition, which is sponsored by the College Industry Council on Material Handling Education, or CICMHE. The contest tests students’ skills in designing solutions for the handling of industrial materials.

With the second-place finish in the 2012-13 academic year competition, MSU’s four undergraduate students – Joe Johnson, Molly Martin, Nate Powell and Colter Schilling – earned a $1,500 prize for themselves and an additional $500 for MSU’s Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department.

“I’m very proud of my students,” said Durward Sobek, professor and coordinator for the industrial engineering program. “It speaks to the quality of the students that we have here at Montana State University, as well as to the quality of the curricula that we teach in the department.”

Schilling, a senior in the industrial engineering program who grew up in Great Falls, said there’s no doubt that Sobek and others in the department push their students.

In fact, all students in Sobek’s “Facility and Material Handling Systems Design” class completed the design competition as a term project. Schilling and his teammates were entered into the contest because they earned the highest project score in the class. 

For the 2012-13 competition (the field is open for eight months to allow the competition to fit into two different academic semesters), organizers asked students to design the most efficient addition to the product lines and square footage used by a retailer warehouse.

Martin said her team had the benefit of having worked together previously.

“I was lucky to have a great team to work with,” said Martin, an Oregon native now working as a production scheduler in Waco, Texas. “Part of what made us successful was that we already knew where each other’s strengths were, so we didn’t have to spend any time figuring that out and just got down to work.”

The case studies used for the materials handling competition are an effective teaching tool, although to get the most out of it, students are warned at the start of the semester that the contest project will consume a huge amount of time, Sobek said.

“Our curriculum is designed to train students to be working professionals with the skills to optimize the systems that organizations use to deliver goods and services,” Sobek said. “The course specifically looks at how to organize a factory so that you can be as efficient as possible.”

The materials handling contest pushes them up that learning curve and demands a major time commitment from the students, Sobek said.

The project asks students to produce professional-caliber work: a drawing of the facility layout, to optimize the organization of that layout for product flow, to specify the required equipment and to provide for the most efficient use of the facility’s cubic space. They also must discuss how the facility would be managed: How many workers in how many shifts they’re going to need, and what (information technology) support they’ll need on scheduling and material tracking. The project also requires students to stake out an economic justification for the work and put together an implementation plan that will not disrupt ongoing day-to-day operations at the facility.

“And of course, they are also evaluated on the overall quality of their deliverables,” Sobek said.

The MSU entry in the contest was likely going up against those from schools that had graduate students on their teams, Sobek added. Rochester Institute of Technology took the top spot, while MSU finished ahead of third-place Texas A&M University.

“It was pretty cool to see how well we did in the competition given all the time we put in,” Schilling said. “And also cool to see that we finished higher than a lot of the heavy hitters from bigger, more well-known universities.”

Because the contest is open for much of an academic year, and then the results aren’t announced for another four months, Powell said, by the time the results were announced in early October, the competition had slipped his mind. Powell, a Helena native, is now working in Oregon for Intel Corporation as a facilities design engineer.

“I wasn’t really thinking about it, that’s for sure,” Powell said. “But the funny thing is now I’m doing a lot of that stuff for my job.”

Martin, who works doing scheduling optimization, said the Materials Handling Student Design Competition project came in handy as she was interviewing for jobs last spring.

“There are always things that you can take away from a project like that, like being able to work with other people and doing something that’s in your field,” Martin said. “Now for my job, while I’m not in a warehouse like we planned materials handling for in the competition, but materials handling is definitely a factor. I think when it comes to a job interview, just having an understanding of materials handling is really helpful.”

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 396-0988,