Every time Steven Halprin scooped ice cream from the commercial freezer at his dessert parlor, he saw flaws in the freezer's cooling design.
He had his own design to fix the problem but not the technical know-how to engineer it. So for 12 years, his blueprints and sketches lay beneath a stack of papers in his briefcase.
This month, Halprin watched as students from UNC Charlotte's Lee College of Engineering took those drawings and unveiled the prototype for his first-ever commercial ice-cream freezer.
The freezer was one of 19 full-year projects and 49 mid-term projects shown off Dec. 9 at UNC Charlotte for the December Senior Design Exposition.
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Engineering students at the college are required to take on a project during their senior year. The first semester, they develop a solution; the second semester, they must implement it.
The exposition often shows how the collaboration between businesses and students benefits both.
"I try to solicit local companies to sponsor real-world design projects for these kids to do," said Bill Heybruck, director at the Industrial Solutions Laboratory at UNC Charlotte. "It's taking the theory they learn in school and applying it to a real-life situation."
The students gain the experience, and the companies reap rewards, too.
"Steven came up with a new type of ice-cream cabinet, but he didn't have the resources to do the technical design and implementation," said Heybruck. "We put a team of students on it. They took his idea, and they implemented it. Yesterday, he went and filed for a provisional patent on it."
Most ideas will not make it to the patent stage, said Heybruck, but often will be used in some capacity by the businesses that sponsored the project.
"Our sponsor's daughter has a handicap," said engineering student John Kruckeberg, who explained the concept for the beach wheelchair he helped design. "She really enjoys going to the beach, but the issue was none of the wheelchairs that can go on the beach fit her needs."
Kruckeberg, 27, and his team created an adjustable wheelchair they believe is more manageable on sand than other beach wheelchairs currently on the market.
A lot of the projects, said Heybruck, often stop after the sponsor's prototype is created. "We had a guy with a commercial landscaping business who wanted a motorized deflector so he could be mowing a lawn, come to a flower patch, lower the deflector and pass the flower patch," said Heybruck. After the prototype was developed, the landscaper, who now has the design rights, showed no interest in marketing the deflector. "He got his one-of-a-kind," said Heybruck. "He uses it every day."
Halprin's brother, Jay, said the two intend to go further than the others with Steven's long-awaited prototype. "We'll take it to the next stage, which will mean taking it to a professional engineering firm to take this first prototype to a second stage and eventually to market," he said.