Brien Kurtz has wanted to be an engineer since he was a little boy. Now 21, the Hilton Head Island native is well on his way.
A mechanical engineering student at the University of Notre Dame, Kurtz just returned from a seven-week internship in China, where he gained valuable experience in his field.
Kurtz was selected, along with four other Notre Dame students, to represent the school's Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering in a joint program with Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The students stayed at Tsinghua University in Beijing and worked with American-based company Johnson Controls on improving the cost-effectiveness of its car seat frame design.
Kurtz said they were specifically working on seats for a class of vehicles Johnson Controls sells to Chinese manufacturers.
"The task that they gave us was to make the seat cheaper to produce," Kurtz said. "That seemed like a pretty simple idea -- just make it cheaper. How hard could that be? Turns out it's really hard."
He said engineers have spent years designing and optimizing the seat design to make it as cheap as possible for Chinese consumers.
"To ask several undergraduate engineers to just step in and in seven weeks make it cheaper -- no small task," he said.
Kurtz said he and the other students traveled to Johnson Controls headquarters and manufacturing plant in Changchun, where they watched the seats be made from start to finish.
"That sounds dreadfully boring for normal people," he said. "But as engineers we were fascinated. It was like an episode of 'How It's Made.'"
Kurtz said in order to figure out how to make the seats cheaper, the students looked at all the different parts of the seat to see what was necessary. They found that for the most part the company already does a good job putting the seats together using sheet metal. They researched to see if there is a different material they could use that might make it cheaper and still meet all the safety requirements.
The students found that the company was using complex parts that require a lot of machining for the basin of the seat.
"We thought, 'Why can't we replace this by an injection mold for plastics so it's one step?'" he said. "You have the dyes. You inject it. You mold it. It comes out in one step. ... That would reduce manufacturing costs because it's just one step instead of 10 to do it."
They still had to figure out what kind of materials to use that would be strong enough. They found that polymer matrix composite would reduce the cost.
Kurtz said the company was impressed. They said the students did a good job and they would look into their solution further.
"They gave us what was essentially an almost impossible task," Kurtz said. "The fact that we got something that was promising and the fact that they indicated that was a pretty proud accomplishment for us."
Notre Dame engineering professor Dr. Bill Goodwine said his students were successful in coming up with a cheaper way to produce a car seat. He said the analysis and the final design were very good.
"He's sort of enthusiastically immersed himself in all the various dimensions of this project and program," Goodwine said about Kurtz. "He'll be a successful engineer, and hopefully this experience will add a dimension to his education."
Kurtz still has three years left to complete the five-year program at Notre Dame. He said he is looking forward to working as a student assistant for the school's Environmental Change Initiative.
"I know I'll be going back to Notre Dame with a completely renewed vigor for everything that I'll be doing," he said.
Follow Amy Coyne Bredeson at twitter.com/IPBG_Amy.