David Ball (third from left) with the 2019 Design Challenge winning team from Brunel University London
David Ball (third from left) with the 2019 Design Challenge winning team from Brunel University London

We caught up with David Ball, IMechE Power Industries Division North West Centre Chair and Design Challenge Founder who will be stepping down as the Challenge’s Steering Committee Chair after 14 years in the role.

IMechE CEO Colin Brown notes that “David Ball is not only the founder of the Design Challenge but has also been the source of energy and ideas crucial to its development and growth over the years. As David steps down from his day-to-day operational responsibility position as DC Steering Committee Chair, it is very important to acknowledge the outstanding contribution he has made. This is not only to creating a well-respected International Design Challenge, but also in many other ways to our Institution more widely.”

Read our full interview with David below to find out more about his background with the Design Challenge, how it all began, his advice for students taking part and much more.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your history with the Design Challenge and how it started?

David Ball (DB): My reason for introducing the Design Challenge in 2007 was because over many years I have employed numerous graduates straight from university and whilst they had a vast amount of knowledge, they didn’t know how to use it.

I wanted to find a way of exposing undergraduate engineers to the real world of engineering whereby teams are given a specification and from it they have to come up with a design solution to an engineering requirement. The students are required to make the device themselves, test it, present it, and compete with their peers so that they are prepared for what will be expected of them after they graduate.

Q: How has the Design Challenge developed over the years?

DB: In 2007 I was the Chairman of the Institution’s Greater Manchester Area and I had representatives from three North West universities on my regional committee. I asked them if they would form a sub-committee with me to find a way of exposing undergraduates to the real world of engineering. They were very enthusiastic to do so and, to cut a long story short, we developed the Design Challenge in the North West Region (NWR). I very soon persuaded the other three universities in the Region to join and hence the NWR Design Challenge committee was born.

After the initial success of the challenge in the NWR, I started to look for other Regions to participate and I made one of several presentation at a Regional Strategy Board (RSB) meeting. My presentation was well accepted in principle and shortly afterwards I was invited to a meeting in the North Eastern Region after which they adopted the Challenge and started to run with it. The next Region to join was the Greater London Region (GLR), followed by Wessex, the Midlands and Yorkshire.

As the founder of the Design Challenge, I instigated and developed all of the eight first year projects, together with the NWR team, and a further project – a recovery vehicle – is about 70% complete although it has had to be put on hold due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

The eight projects are:

  1. Tension spring-operated vehicle
  2. Water Pump
  3. Tug of War on water
  4. Impact device
  5. External pipe climber
  6. Internal pipe climber
  7. Reversing vehicle
  8. Line launcher.

For the first eight years of the competition, we developed a new project each year, after which four of the projects were adopted and each was repeated after four years.

Each of the four adopted projects represents the first stage of the development of a real life commercial product and the current project (a reversing vehicle) represents the first stage of the development of a robotic vehicle. In the second year, the project represents the second stage of the robotic vehicle, but the complexity has been increased to reflect the second-year level of education.

Q: What would you say has been your most memorable moment in your involvement in the Design Challenge?

DB: The excitement of the first competition from the students and the university staff, together with the comments from the students about how much they had learned during the project!

Q: What do you think is the most difficult part of the competition and why?

DB: The most difficult part of the competition for the students is when they are initially given the project specification and they are asked to produce a design solution and make it. This is something they have never done before and they don’t know how to go about it.

Q: What advice/top tips would you like to give specifically to the competing teams?

DB: Do not look upon this competition as an examination, consider it to be a learning exercise. If their device does not achieve the objective, they will still have learned a great deal and they will have seen what others have done. The next time they have to produce a design solution they will know how to go about it. Gradually, they will learn how to apply the knowledge they have gained, which is the original objective.

Q: What would you say to young engineers who are thinking of entering the Challenge?

DB: If you want to become a competent professional engineer, the Design Challenge is a very good platform to start from, because it contains all the required stages, so you learn what will be expected of you.

Q: Why do you think the Design Challenge is a valuable experience for young engineers?

DB: It simulates what is required from a professional engineer, and for most students it will be the first time they get to experience that.

Q: What are you most excited about for 2021’s competition?

DB: First of all, running successful virtual competitions across the Regions, and secondly, the prospect of running a “normal” Design Challenge National Final at the Institution HQ at Birdcage Walk in October 2021.

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