Podcast transcript: Student innovations at Siemens Design Hack

By margaretfox

Earlier this year, Siemens held the Sustainability Design Hack at Realize Live 2023 to address sustainability challenges and encourage college students to come up with creative and impactful solutions to these challenges. The idea behind the Design Hack was to provide students with the real-life experience of solving sustainability challenges within the industry and provide them with access to mentors and industry experts to help them along the way.

In this episode, Shannon O’Donnell interviews two individuals who took part in this challenge: Ava Boley, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student with an aerospace concentration at Michigan State University, and Ricardo Ramirez, a recent electromechanical engineering graduate from Seneca College.

They will share with us how the Siemens Sustainability Design Hack tested their problem-solving skills and creativity and offered a unique opportunity to collaborate with industry experts and peers. Through their participation, Ava and Ricardo also share how they have gained practical insights into the complexities of engineering design, particularly in sustainability and the automotive sector. 

In This Episode, You Will Learn:

  • Engineering education and problem-solving in the real world (01:54)
  • Sustainability in engineering design (06:44)
  • Industry connections and mentorship at the  Siemens Sustainability Design Hack (17:12)
  • Collaborations with experts from Siemens and NX (18:44)
  • Ava and Ricardo’s Sustainability Design Hack experience and their advice for students (28:36)

Connect with Ava Boley:

Connect with Ricardo Ramirez:

[00:03] Dora Smith: Welcome to Innovation In The Classroom by the Siemens Empowers Education Team. I’m Dora Smith. Earlier this year, Siemens held the Sustainability Design Hack at their Realize Live 2023 event to address sustainability challenges and encourage college students to come up with creative and impactful solutions to these challenges. The idea behind the Design Hack was to provide students with real-life experience of sustainability challenges within industry and give them access to mentors and industry experts to help them along the way. Two individuals who took part in this challenge are Michigan State University engineering student Ava Boley and recent Seneca College electromechanical engineering graduate Ricardo Ramirez and they’ve both joined us on this Innovation in the Classroom episode to talk about their experience at this event. They were challenged to solve an existing design failure on an electric vehicle manufactured by Kyburz Switzerland using their own knowledge, coupled with industry-provided data. Ava was actually part of the winning team and, as such, got to present her solution alongside her team to the Automotive OEM Council, which includes some of the world’s biggest corporations.

[01:24] Shannon O’Donnell: I’m Shannon O’Donnell, and both Ava and Ricardo spoke to me about the experience as a whole, their interactions with industry experts, some of the biggest lessons they learned during the competition, amongst other things. We started out the conversation with Ava and Ricardo describing their academic journeys and why they chose the major they did.

[01:44] Ava Boley: My name is Ava. I’m currently a fourth-year mechanical engineering student with an aerospace concentration at Michigan State University. I decided to go into aerospace because I really liked the idea of the fact that planes and rockets work with so little material, and you have to get them to be able to travel safely but also continue growing and coming up with new ideas to add new things to them, and making them still work as safe as they were.

[02:16] Ricardo Ramirez: I did study electromechanical engineering, with a focus on the automation field, at Seneca College in Canada, Toronto. Basically, I chose this program because it’s focused a lot on this whole new industry of creating automated processes and seeing all the processes from the beginning of your product to the end, how to automate it, and how to adapt it to the new technology. So, that’s why I chose this program because I think it involves so many things that you can get involved in different engineering fields.

[02:49] Shannon O’Donnell: After describing each of their respective educational paths and why they chose them, I asked Ava and Ricardo how they first learned about automated processes. Here’s what they had to say: 

[03:03] Ricardo Ramirez: Well, I did start learning about automated processes because my mother is an engineer and she used to work a lot in the automotive industry. So, I remember going with her when I was a child and getting to the plant and seeing the little automation processes. Because when she was working and I was little, PLC programming and all those kinds of processes were starting, but they were baby processes; they were still not as advanced as today. So, since that day, I knew that that was something I used to love, and seeing how these things were working, like if it was a symphony, it was just great.

[03:39] Ava Boley: It’s kind of more of like, with traveling, you get on an airplane, and you’re like, “Whoa, this is like thin.” Unlike school, you hear about planes, and you’ve learned about all space travel and stuff. So, that was always really interesting to me. You hear that the wall of an airplane is an inch thick or something like that. Something minuscule that you think, “Whoa, that’s crazy.” The idea that I could work on stuff like that, with such minuscule parts, and then small things, but still be able to make a big difference and make something that could travel to space, or something like that, it’d be really cool.

[04:23] Shannon O’Donnell: As I mentioned at the start of the episode, the Realize Live Student Sustainability Design Hack was focused on an industry problem, where we had a company, Kyburz, out of Switzerland, provide real data sets to solve a real problem in the realm of manufacturing and electric vehicles. From this perspective, Ava broke down what benefits she saw in this type of collaboration between academia and industry.

[04:51] Ava Boley: So, the fact that I got to see that, okay, it was a very practical real-life experience because I can go to my classes all I want and I can hear, “Here’s the thing that we did, here’s how they solved it.” But without me actually doing any of the solving or thinking they did, just hearing about how they thought, it’s different once you actually get to put it to use. And I’m seeing that “Okay, if aerospace doesn’t work out, I am still interested in manufacturing and automotive. I can apply this to aerospace because now I have that practical knowledge of, well, this is how you work through a problem and this is how you might be able to approach something in a similar vein,” because a similar problem might happen in a different field. You never know.

[05:36] Shannon O’Donnell: You’ve just heard Ava talk about problem-solving. I wondered how both she and Ricardo thought problem-solving in the real world differed compared to the classroom.

[05:48] Ava Boley: So, in the classroom, a lot of the problem-solving is, “Here’s a math equation, solve it,” versus, “Here’s an issue with, like, a function,” or “Here’s an issue that we want you to solve.” Because I’m just starting to get into my very design-intensive courses, where I am going to be doing more of the, “Well, here’s the thing, we want you to design it,” versus, this was a good way to jumpstart that, and it was a good way to see, “Well, okay. So I learned this thing in like my materials class.” You’ve learned that the twist of torsion and buckling failures and all that; you learn about those, but to see them actually be applied to real-life problems versus just numbers on a screen, it’s a lot more intensive. You can do the math, but also you can see how the math applies in real life versus looking at a fridge being tipped over and studying its moment of inertia.

[06:46] Ricardo Ramirez: I think it’s something really important, I think, something really interesting because I have competed since I was a kid on robotics competitions, and the approach that we have to this type of competition, it’s more about not only the direct things that you learn, also the indirect knowledge that you get, because it’s not all focusing on understanding materials, torsion, and the metrics behind it. I think it’s also all the skills that you need to learn to achieve the process, to achieve the goal that you’re looking for. And I think these competitions are the ones that are making the students learn other skills that you won’t see maybe so much at school, because the same as, well, I have seen a lot of little problems, in theory, but not really, okay, here’s the problem. With all the knowledge that you have known, with Internet to your access, with other partners there, with all the really intelligent and interesting people that you have on the conference, get to solve this problem. And that’s how real life works, right? So basically, I think it’s really good because it gives you a little bit of a taste of what you’re actually going to be doing on the engineering field when you’re outside of school, solving problems with sometimes not having the knowledge of why it happened, how it happened, just, “Okay, let’s get it done. Think of ideas and let’s solve it.” Maybe maths would say that it’s within the error, but you gotta solve it. Partners should support these types of programs and these types of competition because I think it makes better engineers. And when you’re outside on the field, you’re not going to be just like an entry-level engineer, you’re going to actually have some knowledge of problems happening on the real world. That’s what I think it’s really important, these type of competitions for all the students.

[08:29] Shannon O’Donnell: As Ricardo has just graduated and entered the workforce, and given that his academic experience is still so fresh in his mind, he talked a bit about the opportunity to advocate for education in his line of work. 

[08:43] Ricardo Ramirez: Even though I have been quite new to this field, to the engineering field, because I just graduated in August. So I have been a [08:49 inaudible] on something just like working full time. But I used to work before as part-time, while I was still studying, but I was getting a little bit more involved in the field. But now that I have this knowledge, with all the skills that I learned in the competition, I have been able to adapt it to my field, and I have been able to advance my career now. We’re looking forward to the company to get some new projects and new stuff because I can understand and I can take more responsibilities, and I can lead more the team, helping my manager to get to the goals that we want, and we can expand. So, for sure, I think, if you ask also my manager, he’s gonna say that he’s really happy with me going into that competition because I think there’s a new me after the competition, and I think that will reflect our feelings for the company, and that’s great for everybody.

[09:47] Shannon O’Donnell: As I mentioned at the start of the episode, the Realize Live Student Sustainability Design Hack addressed the customer’s major sustainability challenge. Given this, Ava and Ricardo broke down some of the key challenges or problems that they aimed to look at with their respective designs, as well as the approaches they each took to rectify them.

[10:08] Ava Boley: So, for a little bit of background, for the issue with the car, a lot of our approach was finding a way to modify all the current cars that were out on the market, versus rolling back every car, and replacing every single car to fix the issue. So we were trying to find ways that we can add on to the car, versus taking apart the car and just redoing it completely. So that’s how we kind of decided to tackle it at first because we thought about redesigning the entire chassis, but then we were like, “Well, that’s not super sustainable,” which is the entire point of the design hack, was to find a way to make it more sustainable for this company. So that was our first decision. And then we kind of just went down the path of “Well, what could we add support-wise? What could we add to distribute the load a little better?” Then we just went along that, and we eventually came to our solution of the brackets for various components of the car to hopefully add more material in the points where all the pressure was going and all the force was going in order to help disperse it and add just like more surface area for the force to go through. 

[11:21] Ricardo Ramirez: We understand the sustainability part. But we also were concerned about its sustainability on a long period. Because we’re saying, “Okay, this is a problem that we’re having right now. There are already existing cars on the streets. But the next ones that we manufacture, we might want to mitigate this type of problem. Instead of only solving the problem, maybe we can find the root of the problem and change it.” We decided to do a three R that it was going to be Redistribute, Reinforce, and Relocate. With this, basically, we redistributed the loads, we reinforced what we were having, and we were going to put up this where it was going to bend. And that was going to be our piece that was going to be folding, if something happened, because of the material difference that was going to be folding. And instead of having to replace a whole chassis and having to do more reparations and things like that, you could just unscrew that part, take it out, put one new one in, just like they do on all the automotive competitions all over the world. That’s what our approach was.

[12:30] Shannon O’Donnell: A huge part of sustainability is innovation. That is, what solutions can we put forward to solve the problems we’re looking at? Innovative solutions come in several shapes and forms and Ava and Ricardo shared with me what they thought were unique and creative ideas that emerged during their own Realize Live experiences.

[12:52] Ava Boley: So, for us, when we were talking about what we could do design-wise, we did consider a modular design for a while, because that is commonly seen in race cars. And the idea of being able to just quickly change out parts was very interesting to us. We also considered changing the angle of some of the stuff, maybe moving the wheels a little bit further away from the point where the crush was compacting. Inevitably, we were like, “Well, that would be a very big change.” And, with the data we have, well, how much could we test? How much could we see if, well, is this actually feasible? So, that’s what we ended up going with the design we did. But we did have the thought of “Well, it would be really cool to just, basically, change the design entirely.” But also, then we’re changing the design entirely. And that’s the design they had for a reason; they’d probably like to stay somewhat similar to it.

[13:48] Ricardo Ramirez: For us, to be fair, we spent too much time at the beginning doing simulations. So, we started with Simcenter, we started to do simulations to see the [13:58 inaudible], to see the different type of loads that it could have, and to try to find out the problem that it was having. But, because of the amount of knowledge that we knew about the problem, we were not really able to actually simulate it, because we did some tests there. But, we’re not able to actually get this same problem we were seeing on the photos. So, it was a little bit difficult to get that, and we spent almost one day on simulation. So, it was a lot of time that we spent there because we wanted to find the problem first. Also, I think that we then focused so much during the presentation on all the other parts and sustainability, talking about the resources, talking about the costs, talking about the manufacturing, all this kind of stuff, we maybe took it a little bit to the side when we’re talking during the presentations. Even though they were really good ideas, we were not able to explain how to get to that point. And that’s something that, when we reviewed the sheets that the judge gave us, that’s something that we suffer a lot, trying to explain “Okay, it’s a good idea but how you get there?” That’s the point that we throw a little bit. And that’s what we have thought, “Oh, we should have explained better. We should have redistributed the time with this and that.” But, yeah, that was pretty much that.

[15:15] Ava Boley: That was kind of something that we focused on was, well, what materials would be sustainable? What materials would hold up well? Keep it lightweight, so it keeps its energy efficiency. What materials could be used to make it that much stronger? So, we focused a bit more on materials. I think the second half of the second day was basically us just talking through “Okay, how would we manufacture our idea? What material would we use?” And then just focusing on adding those things and making those things very clear in the presentation.

[15:49] Shannon O’Donnell: The Realize Live Student Sustainability Design Hack was all about providing a real-life experience in a dynamic atmosphere. This means that the competitors had the chance to undergo the same thought and action processes as their real-life counterparts. As this is the case, I asked Ricardo whether there were any ‘aha’ moments or breakthroughs for him during this experience.

[16:13] Ricardo Ramirez: On our team, what we have is that, pretty much, we were focusing too much on finding the problem. And we figured out that there were a lot of solutions that we could give to this problem without actually knowing the root of the problem. So, we could have some solutions, we’re having the initial problem. So, we said, “Okay, you know what, why are we spending so much time on finding the problem when we can just get some solutions and start working on what we’re actually competing on?” So, we were like, “Okay, maybe that’s what we needed to do.” I think it’s a really good approach because sometimes, in the real world, you won’t be able to have that date of “Okay, this is the exact problem, and this is what’s causing it.” Most of the time, you won’t have that; you just know that it’s broken, that it is not running. So, you just have the problem; you cannot see the root. 

[17:12] Shannon O’Donnell: Another great aspect of the Design Hack was the integration of industry experts, who were always there to mentor and contribute to student projects in meaningful ways. Both Ava and Ricardo agreed that this was something that their teams were able to benefit from and shared the ways in which industry experts helped with the development of their projects and their careers.

[17:34] Ava Boley: We had a couple of people stop by who were really influential in our project. JJ, who Shannon brought in to talk to us about stuff, he was a really good sounding board because he’s a current Master’s and PhD student. So, he’s in graduate-level engineering study, so he’s very smart. He was a really good sounding board for us to be able to talk through like, “Well, this is why we decided to go this route. This is what we think could happen.” And he’s like, “Okay, have you thought about this consideration?” They were able to help us narrow down solutions and help us talk through some of the physical details that we might not have known from our school, our academic backgrounds, and just some of the physical twisting and the physical actual failure of the vehicle that we don’t get to see in person as much. I don’t have a class where I’m bending pipes and twisting pipes to see how they fail. I have a math class where I learn about how they fail, but it’s different. So, it was really cool to have those people be able to give us their experience and help us refine our ideas even more.

[18:44] Ricardo Ramirez: We talk a lot with the people from Siemens that were there, with the people who were on NX and Simcenter, to get a little bit because when we were trying to simulate, we got into some trouble. So, Simcenter people really help us to actually get to the point of actually doing a simulation that we wanted to, and allowed in the Siemens NX because we had some ideas, but we were still not as good because, to be fair, we were good on 3D designing, on some pieces. But we did also struggle on some other pieces. So, we had some different approach with those people. And there were a lot of experts there that we really use to get the things going and to get new ideas, as Ava has said, that maybe it was the same path, but maybe a little bit different. With a little change, it made a complete difference to get a lot of people that has so much experience in the field because we don’t have that experience and it’s something that really helped us during the competition. I was really talking a lot with different people in the industry. I was really seeing some people that were working about the metaverse, and they were simulating how you can just have an empty place and do the simulation and start to see the in the metaverse to create your whole processes. So, I was like really involved on that one. I was like showing prints because I was working with NX CAM to do a little bit of those kinds of things. But this was going to the next step. So, I was just so impressed that I got a little bit lost there.

[20:12] Ava Boley: The grad student I mentioned earlier was there because he was in the aerospace field. I was with one of my teammates was there, and just a bunch of people in the aerospace industry. And it was a really good way to network, talk about, like, what they were doing day to day, in a more relaxed setting versus a career fair setting, which is where I’m usually talking to these companies because trying to get an internship. It was really cool being able to hear about all these projects in a place where they’re like, “Okay, you’re clearly interested in this because you’re here, and you’re not just talking to us because like you want a job.” So, the idea that they could talk about it in more of a relaxed setting. And I talked to like eight different companies at this thing. So, it was interesting hearing differing things from company to company, and how they do things a little differently, to do similar things, or to do different things completely differently. It was great to hear all the different facets of that industry. 

[21:12] Shannon O’Donnell: As you’ve just heard, both Ava and Ricardo were able to make meaningful industry connections during Realize Live. As this is the case, I was curious as to whether they’d been in touch with these experts since the event.

[21:26] Ricardo Ramirez: For me, I’d be going on coach with some of the people that I met there at the hackathon. I was able to keep talking with it and connect on LinkedIn. Because even though the other people mostly that are working in the US and I’m located in Canada, we’re still work a lot with the US. And I’m not looking back to work with people from the US and maybe moving someday to the US, with the connections that I have made. So yeah, I’m still in contact with some of the people that I met. And I think that will be helpful in my career future.

[22:04] Shannon O’Donnell: As this was Ava and Ricardo’s first big professional conference, I wanted to know whether there was anything that stuck out to them from what they saw and experienced during Realize Live, and whether there was anything they could draw on from their experience during the event that left a lasting impression.

[22:22] Ricardo Ramirez: Well, it wasn’t really pressing, I remember because in my career was the first one. But I remember going to one when I was little on the World Trade Center, back in my home country. I remember going to one and it was just as incredible as it was before because getting to see all those projects that Siemens was working and their partners were working at, a lot of new things that I was seeing just the really basic at schools, and seeing all the development that was there, it was just impressing. I really loved the experience, and it was something incredible to live to refer because it’s nothing that you can see at school, it’s not even compared to how much knowledge you can get from all of those people who are there from so many different places from so many different engineering fields. So, it was just a great experience to live.

[23:12] Ava Boley: Just the fact that you got to see so many different facets of innovation. After the competition was over, we had time to walk through the Solution Center and talk to a bunch of different companies. I got to talk to people who are in the field right now about what they do day to day, and how they use CAD in their fields. And just the fact that I got to see so many different companies do so many different things. One of the companies had a robotic hand, which was really cool — Unlimited Tomorrow is that company –  I got to talk to them about how they worked on that, how they went about designing that, how they went about manufacturing it. So that was cool to hear more about that because I did at one point consider becoming something in the medical field or biomedical engineering. Then I discovered I’m deathly afraid of needles, so that’s not the field for me.

[24:06] Ricardo Ramirez: I think that one big impression that I had at the hackathon was about how we’re able to actually, from a real problem on the field, get a solution with the knowledge that we have, because there are many ways of problem-solving into approaching to a problem. But what we focus on was on what I know, and what I can learn from the people that are surrounding me, because we were not really experienced on solving a problem on the mechanical design of something. So we started with what we knew and we went and saw our surroundings of people that were able to actually help us with that. And I think that’s something really impressive, and something that really is helpful for me, and then I will remember it. Because sometimes you don’t need to solve the problem yourself. You are some one of the rough people, co-workers, friends and family that you might know, they can give you some ideas. And they can tell you different approaches maybe that you haven’t even seen because of your background. So I think there’s something really that I’m going to take for the rest of my life, understanding my surroundings and taking advantage of who am I with. So I think that’s really important.

[25:22] Ava Boley: As Ricardo was saying, it was definitely a great experience to get to see so many people and have so many people just stop and interact with you. When you’re explaining the problem, you’re seeing different ways that people react, you’re seeing different solutions, you’re seeing them think of solutions they would go through and it might be something totally different than a solution we even thought of. And that was great to see like, “Okay, this person has been in the industry for a while. They’ve seen the industry grow and they’ve seen– well, okay, if this is their first thought, that’s an interesting first thought, maybe there’d be something cool to look into in the future. Also, just the idea that so many different people were at that conference, that you’re seeing so many different people who do so many different things. As a woman in engineering, obviously, a lot of my classes are very male-dominated, and getting to see some people will just be like, “Oh, hey, look, there’s a girl on that team, I’m gonna go talk to that team, and talk to that person.” And getting to make some of those connections was also super great as well.

[26:36] Shannon O’Donnell: In addition to connecting Realize Live participants to industry experts, the event also provided an opportunity for networking amongst participants and mentors from different backgrounds and countries. I wondered whether this was something Ava and Ricardo were able to benefit from. 

[26:55] Ricardo Ramirez: Yeah, I think that globalization is something that is happening nowadays when you’re working. Here at work, I’m working with people from all over backgrounds that study in different places, that have different approaches to the same solution, the same problem; they have different approaches. So, basically, yeah, we were involved there with people that were from different places all over the world, with also companies that were in different locations, on different parts of the world. So, I think we got a little bit there to get people from different backgrounds and from different knowledge. So, I think, yeah, it was really helpful to know because that’s what you’re gonna see in a real environment; to see and work with people that it’s globally communicated.

[27:39] Shannon O’Donnell: Because Ava was on the winning team at this year’s design hack, she was given the opportunity to present, alongside her colleagues, their final project to the OEM Council. Drawing on this experience, I asked her whether she had any advice for presenting that she would share with other students.

[27:57] Ava Boley: It’s nerve-racking presenting to people; you can embrace that, but don’t let it take over. Because, yes you’re presenting to—in our case, we’re presenting to all these important people, and all these important companies. And it’s like, “Okay, wow, they’re up there. I’m down here.” But it’s an opportunity for you to show that you know what you’re talking about. You’ve put all this effort into this project, present it like you know what you’re talking about. Don’t let be questions, let it be known that this is what you did, this is what you know. You did the work.

[28:36] Shannon O’Donnell: As our interview came to an end, Ava and Ricardo shared what advice they’d have for students thinking of participating in the Student Sustainability Design Hack, or any event of similar nature.

[28:49] Ava Boley: I’m very glad I went. Yes, it’s cool I won, but also the experience was great. And it was a wonderful learning opportunity that I wouldn’t get if I hadn’t gone. If you’re on the fence, go for it, talk to people, try to make those connections. You might feel awkward trying to talk to people. But I guarantee you’re not the only person who feels awkward sometimes. And those connections can be something that will result in something later on. Connections are kind of what makes you work in an industry sometimes. So, having those connections, going in there, getting the experience is something I definitely don’t regret; just going for it and trying it.

[29:33] Ricardo Ramirez: My recommendation is the next time if you go into these competitions or other competitions, have fun. You are here not on a death sentence. You’re not here to get something that nobody has ever achieved. No, you’re here to have fun. And to be able to develop your skills and put them onto something, and do something more structured. So, I would say, just have fun. You know your stuff, you have your knowledge, use it. But if you get too mentally disruptive, if you get too stressed, you won’t be able to prove or show your actual skill. So, just have fun, interact with people, get new fields, interact, get new things done, new knowledge. And with that, I would say, just mainly have fun, enjoy your trip, enjoy the competition, and the best is yet to come. So, don’t worry about it. Just have fun.

[30:27] Ava Boley: I would say, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, and go for things that you feel might not be the best fit. Because, I’m going to be honest, sustainability, yes, it’s important. It was not on the top list of things I thought I’d be going into. The fact that I got to do this opportunity, and I got to do everything is so important. So, don’t discount things that you aren’t certain about until you’ve looked into it. And just don’t be afraid to reach and go for things that might be a little out of your reach because you never know what might happen.

[31:01] Ricardo Ramirez: Our time is now. There were a lot of bad things done on the field in past times. There were a lot of malpractices and not sustainable practices that were done during our whole life as humanity. So, there were a lot of bad things that we did, but our time is now. If we want to get to the next step, if we really want to get involved in sustainability, we need to get it done now, we need to start now because the best time to start was yesterday, but the second best is now. So, I would really want to tell corporate people and everybody that can get involved in this: This is our time, and let’s make our future bright. Let’s make a great future. Don’t let it for tomorrow. Let’s start now. That’s what I would say.

[31:51] Dora Smith: A big thank you to Ava and Ricardo for taking the time to speak to us about their design hack experience, and for their wise words to any students who may be thinking of participating in real-life competitions. This has been an “Innovation in the Classroom” episode. Stay tuned to Innovation in the Classroom wherever you do podcasts. I’m Dora Smith. Thanks so much for listening.

Leave a Reply

This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at