Senior Students Flush Out Innovative Solutions

Four Dordt University senior engineering majors developed a functional, cost-saving prototype for Horwitz, Inc., addressing the company's need for a simplified and efficient method to transport and position massive, complex commercial restroom plumbing units.

Horwitz, Inc. is a full-service specialty contractor in the Twin Cities that provides design-build, installation, and ongoing support for HVAC, plumbing, and electrical markets. They have been looking for a simplified way to transport and correctly position their massive, complex commercial restroom plumbing.

Who did they look to for a solution? Four senior engineering majors at Dordt, who turned this senior engineering design idea into a fully functioning prototype that can traverse jobsite conditions while still being versatile, compact, reusable, and easy to operate.

The trick is lifting multiple large, heavy units simultaneously, says Professor of Engineering Dr. Jeff Gladstone, who serves as the design project’s faculty adviser. “The company currently must send multiple employees out to a job site for this task, which is expensive. Plus, the supports are long, skinny, and awkward. So having a machine to help with this task would help Horwitz out immensely.”

Experientially, Senior Design provides an opportunity to “engage real-life engineering design with a focus on the process and education of experience, recognizing that learning occurs as much or more from mistakes than from success,” says Professor of Engineering Dr. Ben Saarloos ('99), who coordinates the Senior Design classes.

Dave Landstra, the team’s project manager, kept that in mind as he delegated tasks to his teammates Nathan Patterson, Matthew Bokhoven, and Levi DeGroot based on their individual strengths. “One of my goals was to give my team members experience doing a range of different tasks and allowing them to take ownership and responsibility for what they were doing,” he says.

The team has been level-headed and methodical in their approach to finding a solution, adds Gladstone. “They have done a great job in not letting any major details get away from them throughout the project. They haven’t hung onto bad ideas; they have pivoted to come up with the best solution they can.”

Bokhoven says there were multiple times throughout the project where a design looked good in a 3D model but didn’t work in the actual prototype. They learned that “parts won’t be perfectly cut or dimensioned according to the model.”

One interesting solution the team came up with was how to power the prototype. “The customer wanted it to be battery operated, so the team decided to use what they could find at a hardware store,” says Gladstone. “They found battery packs and did the calculations to determine how much energy was in one battery pack, and how much energy would be needed to lift the system multiple times a day.”

“To me, the most interesting part of the project’s need is the ability to make our solution modular,” explains Patterson. “The company installs carrier groups of different lengths from 10 to 25 feet, depending on what size restroom the building requires. The variation in size forced us to think outside the box.”

This, along with the need to lift the units uniformly, led the team to implement synchronized actuators. These devices produce linear motion by converting energy. “Each ‘truck’ has four actuators, and the carrier group we tested requires two trucks,” says Patterson. “We used a control box that connects the actuators, which allows each truck to extend at the same rate.”

In short, they spent two semesters and many hours to create a prototype that actually works and could provide excellent cost savings for the client.

“What I’ve enjoyed most about my senior engineering design project is the ability to make a difference for a company with a group of classmates,” says DeGroot. “I have learned how to take a model and make it into a real-life prototype. It has also been interesting to assemble and weld a model based on the needs of the project.”

“It has been a joy to work alongside my team members on this project,” adds Landstra. “This project has been a lot of work, but I’m glad I was able to be part of it, and I am grateful for the practical experience that I gained from it.”

Sarah Moss ('10)

A picture of campus behind yellow prairie flowers