Stroke of Genius

Posted by: Jessie Scanlon on May 14, 2009

Tis the season of student design projects, as my colleague Bruce Nussbaum has pointed out. As students across the country publicly display their work, it’s a chance for potential employers to spot new talent and for potential funders to identify innovative product ideas. (For anyone who assumes student concepts are inherently blue-sky, impractical ideas, I have two words for you: Deborah Adler.) A striking example of student innovation goes on view today at Philadelphia University’s Senior Design Show: The Benson Rower, designed by Dan Tafe and Tim Poiesz, industrial design seniors at the university’s College of Design, Engineering and Commerce.

Benson Rower.jpg The Benson rower looks and functions nothing like those gym machines, on which the rower slides back and forth on a static track while pulling a handle. Such machines provide a good cardiovascular work-out, but they don’t come close to simulating the feeling of sculling, of pulling two oars through the water, and keeping steady despite the waves. Tafe and Poiesz’s prototype, by contrast, mimics the range of motions and pivots that a rower experiences on the water. (Tracking down some video now.)

The machine is named for former New Hampshire Gov. Craig Benson—an avid rower and a friend of the university’s president, Stephen Spinelli—who challenged the students last spring to create a more realistic rowing machine. Tafe and Poiesz, both mechanically inclined designers, leapt at the opportunity. To research the project, the students rode the erg machines that the school’s crew team trained on, and spent a lot of time talking to the rowers. Then the crew coach sent them out in a scull – a terrifying experience, according to Tafe, but essential for teaching them how the machine needed to feel.

Armed with their new rowing knowledge, the pair began building software models of how the machine could work, refining the models over the course of the fall semester. Based on the strength of these virtual designs, the pair got the funding to build a full-scale physical model over their winter break. It was clunky, but functional, and allowed Tafe and Poiesz to test the various cables, springs, and cylinders that allow the machine to pivot forward and backward and to roll from side to side. But the key to the Benson’s movement are the four custom-made pneumatic parts called “fluidic muscles” from the German company, Festo. These parts contract like muscles when they compress air and provide a remarkably wide range of smooth motion. (You can get a sense from this video of Festo’s AirJelly.)

So one year and $26,000 after Benson issued his challenge, Tafe and Poiesz have a sleek functional prototype, which is impressive, given that lost of companies don’t work that fast. The pair also has a business plan—thanks to a collaboration with four Philadelphia University MBAs.

Angel funders, take note.

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What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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