Stanford University

Stanford graduate students use Autodesk software to develop a solution to capture ideas, information, and decisions of global design meetings.

"Working with an Autodesk mentor really complemented Stanford’s educational experience. When I interviewed with Toyota this year, I mentioned the problems we had encountered in this project and described the solution we came up with. Having this kind of experience helped me get the job."
—Michael Situ, Graduate Student, Mechanical Engineering, Stanford University

Project Summary

For the Engineering 310 course at Stanford University, graduate students participate in design challenges presented by major corporations. During the 2007-08 academic year, an Autodesk-sponsored student design team was tasked with building a solution that would facilitate collaboration among globally dispersed engineering teams. Working closely with an Autodesk mentor and three students at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Colombia, the Stanford student team developed a highly flexible teleconferencing system that lets global teams communicate ideas through pen-and-paper drawings as well as speech and body language. Thanks to the Autodesk-Stanford design challenge, engineering students:

  • Experienced a real design cycle
  • Augmented theoretical knowledge with real-world experience
  • Collaborated with Autodesk design professionals
  • Increased their competitiveness for professional positions

The Challenge: Connect Workgroups Around the Globe

How can far-flung engineers collaborate freely and make better design decisions? Manufacturers around the world face this challenge every day. To tackle the issue, a team of Stanford graduate students collaborated with international academic partners as part of the Stanford Engineering 310 course offered in the 2007-08 academic year. As a challenge sponsor, Autodesk tasked the team with developing a working prototype for a solution that could capture ideas, information, and decisions during design meetings attended by geographically dispersed teams.

“The whole idea was a bit overwhelming at first,” admits Lindsey Sundén, a graduate student in mechanical engineering who served as project manager for the Autodesk team. “We were thrown into an intense design loft environment where people worked on different parts of the project. But despite the initial chaos, it was energizing to compare notes and gather ideas from the entire team.”

Increasing the challenge, the Stanford team was required to collaborate with three engineering students at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Cali, Colombia. By experiencing firsthand the same problem they were trying to solve, team members gained valuable insights into the difficulties of conducting international design meetings.

The Solution: Deliver a Flexible System

The team soon decided that any potential solution would need to allow engineers to draw designs on paper and record each pen stroke in real time. At the same time, the solution would have to provide the feel of a face-to-face conversation by capturing facial expressions and body language.

Using design tools including Autodesk® Inventor® software and Autodesk® SketchBook® Pro, the team designed a teleconferencing solution that met their requirements. Resembling a large, glass drafting table, the system quickly captures paper drawings and turns them into digital “sticky notes” that all parties can rearrange on an LCD display. Meeting participants can easily toggle back and forth between viewing the drawing whiteboard and the faces of remote team members. They can even make the drawings translucent, so they can view their team members behind them.

“In traditional teleconferences, you have very little choice about what you see,” says Andrew Wong, a graduate student in electrical engineering. “[This system] is completely different. It’s totally flexible, so you can focus on someone’s hands, face, or drawings as needed. By capturing every physical gesture, [it] helps engineers get their points across.”

Tapping the Expertise of an Autodesk Mentor

Throughout the project, students leaned on an experienced Autodesk engineer for help. Jay Tedeschi, a senior solutions evangelist at Autodesk, met with the students every Thursday to review their design ideas. “Even though Jay is so experienced, he was very careful not to bias us with his own opinions,” says Sundén. “Initially, he just encouraged us to explore lots of ideas. But in the long run, he helped us stay focused on the project goals.”

“Working with an Autodesk mentor really complemented Stanford’s educational experience,” adds Michael Situ, a graduate student in mechanical engineering. “Our professors tend to help us follow design processes and meet deadlines, whereas Jay was more interested in stimulating brainstorms. He even supplied us with some tools for rapid prototyping that helped us push the envelope on our thinking.”

Tedeschi freely shared his expertise with the students, helping them prepare for their careers as engineers. At first, the students asked questions about how a professional design cycle works. Later, they began to encounter real-world communication challenges themselves—and overcome them. “I was actually a little bit glad when the team ran into minor miscommunications or video conferencing lag time problems,” says Tedeschi. “I told them, ‘This is exactly what you’ll face in the real world when you’re part of a remote design team. Find a solution.’ They ended up developing a sophisticated yet elegantly simple product.”

Result: A Unique Educational Experience

Though it is not commercially available, the project has paid dividends for its design team. The solution won two awards and earned positive feedback at Stanford’s annual Computer Science Fair. It also provides team members with a valuable portfolio piece as they seek employment. “When I interviewed with Toyota this year, I mentioned the problems we had encountered in this project and described the solution we came up with,” says Situ. “Having this kind of experience helped me get the job.”

“We combined the theoretical with the practical in a unique way,” adds Sundén. “It was like running our own start-up company. We were delighted to collaborate with Autodesk professionals and gain real-world design experience.”

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Stanford Customer Success Story (pdf - 358Kb)