The Innovative Student Engineer of the Year Awards sponsored by Siemens are aimed at highlighting excellence in engineering degrees across Ireland as well as the key role innovation has to play in terms of economic growth in the coming years.
“Innovation will be vitally important to the revitalisation of the economy,” says Siemens Ireland marketing manager Michael O’Connor. “And we want to promote engineering innovation in any way we can.”
The competition is for final year projects with two awards for students of Level 7 and Level 8 engineering degree programmes accredited by Engineers Ireland. This year's Level 8 Award has gone to Patrick Byrnes, a student at Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and a native of Patrickswell, Co Limerick, for his project aimed at addressing inefficiencies in medical device manufacturing processes.
Alistair Chambers from Carlow town and a student at IT Carlow won the Level 7 category for his invention of a device that allows straw moisture and quality to be easily and efficiently assessed at all stages from the field to the end-user.
Patrick Byrnes’ project arose as a result of his work placement with Zimmer Orthopaedics in Shannon. “I saw a few opportunities to improve the current manufacturing process and I applied what I had learned in college as well as my real life experience to them”, he says.
He looked at two particular manual processes for cleaning and blasting products which are relatively slow, inexact and physically strenuous. “I looked at ways to make the processes easier and how to save time and eliminate rework. If you have a person manually cleaning and blasting a product it’s quite labour intensive. I have developed a way to automate the process making it faster and much more efficient.”
Very importantly, the improvements Byrnes has devised do not require a large capital outlay. “It doesn’t require a massive budget to implement and companies won’t have to spend a lot on it,” Byrnes points out.
He already has big plans for the innovation. "I set up my own company Bynco as part of the final year project and I am aiming at small and medium sized companies in the medical devices sector who could benefit from this process improvement. This is just one project and I have lots of other ideas on the table. The Engineers Ireland Award will be a great boost for the business and I have already had some companies approaching me as a result of it."
Alistair Chambers had his eureka moment while standing out in a field one morning. He was stacking straw bales in a field on the family farm near Athy, Co Kildare at 3am and was wishing that he didn't have to get out of the tractor each time he needed to check the moisture content of a straw bale.
Moisture is a crucial factor in straw as Chambers explains. “A bale of straw has to be below 15 or 16 per cent moisture to be usable as bedding. If it contains more it can ferment when you put it into a shed and in some cases it can even combust causing serious fires as a result of the heat generated. This means that you have to get on and off a tractor quite often to test the moisture of bales.”
He combined his engineering education and training with his practical experience to develop a solution. “You stack the straw bales using a loader at the front of a tractor. I replaced one of the tines on the fork of the loader with a moisture meter which sends data back to a display in the cab. This gives the driver information on the moisture content of every bale if they want it and makes the job much quicker and easier to do.”
He has just begun his final year at IT Carlow and intends to commercialise his invention at some stage. "I won't be doing anything with it until next year when I am finished college. The intellectual property is protected and I am interested in doing something commercial with it. But I will always be a farmer by choice. If I can combine that with engineering at some stage I will do it."
Michael O'Connor believes the competition is an excellent fit for Siemens. "We have been sponsoring it for the past 15 years and it very much reflects our philosophy as a company. Innovation is very important to us at Siemens and we spend €4 billion annually, about 5 per cent of our turnover, on it. On average we produce about 40 inventions every day. Three-quarters of our products are less than five years old and if you look at that another way we don't know where 75 per cent of the products we will have in five years time are coming from."
This commitment to innovation extends outside the company. “We are committed to promoting engineering as a career and innovation generally through our Generation 21 programme which includes initiatives aimed at fostering interest in science, technology and engineering right the way from primary school level. We believe that engineers possess skills which will be vitally important for Ireland’s future and the awards very much fit in with our emphasis on the concept of learning by doing. The awards help the students to think both strategically and conceptually. It has also been very good to see projects in very important sectors such as healthcare, food, and agriculture coming to the fore in recent years.”