Product design students envisioning future of mobility with Eaton partnership

Contact: Erin Flynn

Flying cars. Automated supply systems coordinating robot deliveries. Undersea living and civilian space exploration. The mobility solutions of tomorrow are being dreamed up today at Western Michigan University.

Through a partnership with Eaton Corp., the first cohort of product design students—now in their third year in the Richmond Institute for Design and Innovation—is envisioning what the world might look like in 50 years.

Sunki Hong, assistant professor, talks to her class about designing for the future of mobility.

“The students are learning how to use ‘design fiction’ to spur present-day innovation,” says Michael Elwell, director of the Richmond Institute. “The result is transformative, disruptive design solutions instead of the incremental change we typically see in industry.”

In this “special topics” course, students are creating future transportation scenarios for the year 2070, considering what role Eaton might play in that world, and then developing products for those scenarios.

“I love the early stages of the design process when I get to sketch out as many ideas as possible before settling on one that will do the job in the most efficient and elegant way possible,” says Nick Koch, who is designing a helmet that pilots of on-demand flying car services might wear.  “This helmet will allow the user to have an unseen full connection to the aircraft they are piloting,” displaying aeronautics, trip and aircraft information, pilot health and passenger status information, he says.

Classmate David Bulley is focusing on transportation related to orders and deliveries, focusing on automated systems.

“I’m working on the idea of magnetic propulsion for land-based vehicles and hover flying for personal transportation,” he says. “Each storage cube will be its own robot that can move itself from different points and even stack itself on other cubes for transportation.”


Aisha Thaj presents her design.

The course is the first of six that Eaton has committed to being involved in, putting students in the driver’s seat on projects involving such topics as transportation, electrification and sustainability. Eaton engineers and designers will interact with students throughout the courses, offering project critiques and guidance.

“It’s important to Eaton that we help grow a design program like the Richmond Institute for Design and Innovation has, so that this community can grow in its foundation of having good, strong design opportunities,” says Phil Goodwin, a user experience designer at Eaton who joined the Institute’s industry advisory board and has been working with the product design students.

The project reflects Eaton’s long-term intent to support WMU and the Richmond Institute as a foundational partner.

“Part of our responsibility as an organization is to make our community stronger,” adds Andrea Russell, human resources director at Eaton. “We’re lucky to have a large university with great programs that we can work with.”

The relationship is mutually beneficial. Students have a tremendous opportunity to work on real-world projects and get mentorship and guidance both during their college career and after graduation. There’s knowledge transfer in both directions.

Phil Goodwin, of Eaton, listens to student presentations.

“The students benefit from feedback from industry professionals and get to list the experience on their resumé,” says Elwell, noting that there’s extra motivation in working with a corporate sponsor because there’s a possibility the student’s work could actually go into production.

The opportunity, Bulley says, is invaluable to his own career aspirations.

“WMU teaches us the skills, but also puts us in front of the people we will be working for. Networking is the best asset of this program.”


In fall 2020, a new course will be introduced in the Richmond Institute, opening up the product design experience to students across the University.

“We will build smart, interdisciplinary teams of students based upon the needs of our corporate partners. These students will apply design thinking methodologies to real-world problems, while learning how to collaborate with students from other disciplines—a skill crucial to the workplace.”

An example might be pairing a design student with an engineering student and an occupational therapy student to help create a prototype for a rehabilitation device. The teams will have the opportunity to gain resumé-building experience in the field and in the institute’s world-
class facilities.

A student shows his flying car concept.

“Combining fine arts, engineering and business, (the Richmond Institute) takes a step into the future where few other universities have had the vision or courage to go,” says Linda Morgan Demmer, who—along with her husband, Bill—donated $900,000 to create the DREAM Lab, which includes state-of-the art machining and design capabilities for rapid prototyping.

“This program is designed to develop graduates who will enter the job market with a broad educational view and with talents that will be highly sought after by employers.”

“Being part of the first class of this new program has been a life-changing experience,” says Koch. “With every project, we are challenged to do something new and figure it out as we go along. It will make a positive impact on all of our careers as it forces us to develop a strong work ethic and be resilient workers.”

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