Thirteen Beams and a Bright Idea | Trinity University
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Thirteen Beams and a Bright Idea

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

IllumiNATION, a team of senior engineering science students, design a safer and more efficient device to replace light bulbs in Laurie Auditorium

by Jeanna Goodrich Balreira '08

How many engineers does it take to change a lightbulb? In Laurie Auditorium, it takes a team of contractors, heavy equipment, and a slew of safety gear. So when technicians in facilities services posed a design challenge to a group of senior engineering science students, it seemed only fitting that Laurie could serve as a stage for a bright idea.

“It was something we’d been thinking about for years,” Kevin Hawkins, director of Laurie Auditorium, said. “Currently, contractors are lifted up to the top of the beam, then walk down the beam to change the bulbs. It is really difficult, time-consuming, and sometimes hazardous.” The auditorium has 13 I-beams, oriented like H-beams, that connect to the roof with v-shaped joints; each beam houses 10 to 15 lamps on the top, and up to 60 on the bottom. Distance from the top of the beams to the floor ranges from 18 to 38 feet, and the angle of the seating area makes it impossible to use lift equipment over the entire distance.

The goal was clear: design a safer and more efficient method for changing the lamps atop the beams in Laurie Auditorium. As part of their senior design capstone, nine engineers were handed the challenge at the beginning of the fall semester. Split into two groups, each was charged with designing and developing its own unique solution.

By the end of the semester, Jonathan Fleming, Megan Garcia, Eshan Jayamanne, Stephen Weisenburger, and Tyler Ybarra had designed a bosun’s chair on a zip-line system; Gerardo Hernandez, Gregory Throne, Weslyn Wagner, and Ryan Wilson had designed a buggy that would attach to and slide along the beam. The teams' adviser, engineering science professor Pete Kelly-Zion, selected buggy system to move into the development phase.

The Illuminators, back in their larger group of nine, began the spring semester with a daunting task ahead: the cycle of prototyping, testing, and improving upon a buggy that could ultimately be implemented in the auditorium. “From the original prototype they came in with to what they produced in the end was pretty amazing. After going up and getting detailed measurements and pictures, they would come back with a prototype, test it, disappear for a couple of weeks, and then come back again,” Hawkins said. “Every time they came back, it improved more and more.”

“We needed to figure out exactly what we wanted to produce as a team,” Wagner said, “and once we had those ideas in mind, we hit the ground running. We went through several iterations of our prototype, building and evolving toward the final product. We started small with big aspirations, and ended up with a design that met our goals and constraints.”

“We got to see what we could apply using what we learned in our four years here,” Hernandez said. “We went back to our first two years of basic statics and dynamics to use those tools, but we got our hands dirty a lot too!”

Yet the process of prototyping wasn’t just drilling and welding. The team worked with advisers, stakeholders, and benefactors to communicate budgetary details and constraints and to develop documentation and safety procedures. “The engineering science department, in all of our classes, requires lots of writing, lots of reporting, and lots of written and oral communication, which really came to light in this project,” Garcia said. “The amount of writing and communication integrated into all of my classes, engineering and otherwise, was really beneficial."

“Our liberal arts education at Trinity allowed us to think outside of the box, to communicate effectively, and to break the stereotype of the narrow-minded engineer with no social skills.” Hernandez added. “We grabbed concepts of being able to communicate, being able to write, and being able to think on our feet to reach out to other departments to seek help with funding and inspiration.”

Twelve weeks and six prototypes later, the Illuminators brought their final buggy to Laurie Auditorium. With the assistance of Hawkins, they hoisted the buggy onto a beam to test its strength, movement, and ability to hinge over obstacles. “[The buggy] allows the operator to reach both the upper and lower lights, and includes all of the necessary safety gear,” Hawkins said. “From my perspective, it’s a working device.”

“It was a long process, always changing... but definitely worth the chances we took,” Hernandez said. “Trinity gives you the opportunity to take those chances, to spark other ideas.”

And if ideas like this keep sparking, lights all across campus will shine brighter than ever.

Jeanna Goodrich Balreira is the associate director of creative communication in university marketing communications and a 2008 Trinity graduate. You can reach her at jgoodri1 [at]