Undergrads Go the Distance to Design for Garmin

May 5, 2020

Mechanical engineering seniors encounter unexpected terrain working on GPS smartwatches

By Elizabeth Witherspoon

Oversize 3D-printed prototype

ME students used 3D printers to develop oversize prototypes in a rainbow of colors to work the bugs out of their designs. Then they reduced them to meet the specifications spelled out by Garmin.

Like the runners who use Garmin smartwatches to map their routes, students in Neal Simmons’ mechanical engineering senior design class have encountered some unexpected terrain as they completed two projects for the company this semester.

Initially Simmons considered them two of the more challenging, yet fun, design projects, with their many hands-on components and the engineering constraints to withstand consumers’ rugged use of the products involved. No one knew at the start of this semester, however, what lay ahead in terms of constraints added by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Although some of Garmin’s testing facilities have been shut down because of COVID-19, the students continued to make strong progress remotely on their prototypes and designs,” said Simmons from his home office. "Adam Demicco [Garmin’s mechanical engineering team lead] and Garmin have been fantastic to work with and very supportive of the students. While it is disappointing that students could not be on campus to work on their final design, we found ways to continue progress such as setting up 3D printers in our house that students in all groups could print to, and then shipping them their parts.”

Prototype of watch project on wristIn the fall semester, Demicco offered two project groups the opportunity to each design a specific sport watch feature for Garmin. The company pioneered modern smartwatches more than 16 years ago with the Forerunner, the first GPS (global positioning system) device for runners.

This semester the two groups turned their proposals written in the fall semester into prototypes, then tested and presented them to Demicco and Simmons.

Both groups’ designs had to be able to hold up and remain secure in the rigorous conditions that smartwatch users encounter daily in multisport settings. These include vibration, dropping, sunlight exposure, bug spray, dust, grit, freshwater and saltwater, as well as underwater pressures associated with swimming or snorkeling. Therefore, selecting the right materials were also an important part of the design phase, explained Simmons.

“Senior design gave me an opportunity to apply the engineering knowledge and creativity I have gained throughout my time at Duke to a real product design scenario."

Until classes went online following spring break, the groups worked together in campus makerspaces and met weekly with Simmons to review progress, ask questions and obtain feedback on their designs. They used 3D printers to develop oversize prototypes to work the bugs out of their designs, then reduced them to meet the specifications spelled out by Demicco.

“Senior design gave me an opportunity to apply the engineering knowledge and creativity I have gained throughout my time at Duke to a real product design scenario," said Flurina (Flo) Boslough, who worked on one of the design teams. “Collaborating with Garmin and an awesome group of mechanical engineering students to push a conceptual design to a functional prototype was an incredibly valuable way to conclude senior year. Senior design was the best group project I have done at Duke and I am stoked with our final design!”

This was Garmin’s first year working with the Pratt School of Engineering. The company also worked with senior design students in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering. Demicco was impressed by the class diversity in terms of gender (half are female) and range of backgrounds.   

“The students are bright, they’re eager to learn and eager to get as much out of the process as they can,” he said. “They wanted to go into Garmin and see all the tests run [the test facility is in Kansas]. And although it’s a mechanical-only class, they were embracing electrical elements of the design to improve their final product. They were reaching above and beyond.”