SBDC partnerships offer students real business experience
December 14, 2011
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LEWISBURG, Pa.— Student consultants in Bucknell University's Small Business Development Center work with local businesses each semester on projects ranging from product development and business plans to cost analysis and marketing.
In the past year, students helped refine playground equipment, develop an all-natural liquid soap, build mobile road barriers and refine technology for a baseball training mechanism, among other projects.
Juniors Jake Pedder and Li Xiaolong, for instance, partnered with product engineers at Playworld Systems Inc. in Lewisburg to find out why some of the rungs on their built-in, concave ladders were breaking after heavy use.
"We found that the supports were shearing in the weld's heat-affected zone if the crossbars were too long or the walls were too thin," said Pedder, a mechanical engineering major. "We used structural engineering as well as finite-element-analysis to create guidelines for future designs. We learned a lot about product design and development and gained technical knowledge."
Statewide engineering program Bucknell's SBDC, one of 18 in Pennsylvania, offers free, confidential help to local businesses in Union, Snyder, Northumberland, Perry, Montour and Juniata counties. It also gives students hands-on experience with solving real problems companies face.
Housed in the College of Engineering, the Bucknell SBDC is unique in that it provides new product development, computer-aided design and analysis, prototyping and laboratory research, said Steven Stumbris, interim director and most recently assistant director for technical consulting. Muncy-based Telepole Manufacturing, for instance, boosted its annual sales by more than $450,000 through working with Bucknell student consultants on product improvement. The center receives funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Bucknell.
Chris Ivory, product and manufacturing engineering director at Playworld Systems, said his company's ongoing partnership with the SBDC has helped product engineers refine designs and improve products.
"We have materials we use over and over that have similar geometries," Ivory said. "The students were looking at how thin they could make the materials and still have them be strong. The partnership gives students the experience of working on product development. It also helps us refine our design process."
Cost analysis Other projects focuses on different aspects of business. Jack Fornaciari, a junior economics major, for instance, conducted a competitive analysis for an entrepreneur considering buying a bed-and-breakfast business. He considered factors such as industry competition, occupancy rates and room prices to determine that the asking price was higher than what the business was worth.
Nathan Hill, a junior mechanical engineering major, helped Fromm Barriers Inc. in Shamokin design and build "mobile, rapid-deployment" barriers for use in law enforcement and secure facilities. The barrier prototype will be crash tested by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"One thing I learned is that you really have to think about manufacturability as you design," Hill said.
A better swing J.D. Hirst, a fifth-year student pursuing a combined bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and management, worked with Pittsburgh-area Swing Rep Hitting Systems on a baseball training technology to improve hand-eye coordination. He developed a prototype using a small motor and a laser indicator. The company has a patent pending on the product.
"I learned a lot about the design process from concept to prototype," Hirst said. "We had to look at consumer requirements, safety and usability and do patent searching."
Damon Vinciguerra, a fifth-year student pursuing a combined bachelor's and master's degree in chemical engineering, worked with a chemical engineering senior team on a project with Pompeii Street Soap Co. of Mifflinburg to develop an all-natural, liquid hand soap.
"I learned how to talk to a client, scope out a problem with them, and find out what they needed," he said.
Answering demand Jessica Grill, the business owner, said the partnership allowed her to work on a new product her customers have been requesting.
"I do not have a lot of time for product development. We make everything, and we have over 100 products," Grill said. "Our specialty is bar soap, but we have a huge demand for liquid natural soaps. The students came up with a wonderful formula for my peppermint liquid soap. I am tweaking it now for shelf life and the type of packaging I need."
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