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What are the Most Unusual or Unexpected Uses for Your Engineering Knowledge?

02/18/2016 5:45 PM

Mine is building props for my daughter's colorguard team.

I have a BSME and was a machine design engineer for 16 years, designing $.5 million or more machine tools used to manufacture bearings. My current job (which I've been in for the the past 15+ years) doesn't really require the same "hardcore" engineering knowledge that my old job did. That doesn't mean I don't still have a chance to practice it though; it's just in a less traditional place. Both of my daughters have participated on their school's varsity winterguard team. For those who don't know, winterguard is referred to as "The Sport of the Arts" and is performed indoors in gymnasiums during the winter months. It combines flag, sabre and rifle spinning with dance and gymnastics correographed to recorded music and performed on a painted tarp on a gym floor. it is a competitive sport, with judged scores similar to what you see with competitive ice skating and diving.

Another element (as I soon found out after my daughters joined the team) is props. Some teams don't have a lot of props, but our director loves them. The teams have 8-10 minutes (depending on what class they are in) to setup their tarp, props and equipment, perform, and break everything down and get off the floor.

Here are the requirements for all of the props we build:

  • We only have 2 1/2 to 3 minutes to setup and breakdown the props - that's total time for both, so roughly 1 1/2 minutes on each end of the performance. If we go over the time limit, there is a .1 point penalty for every 3 seconds.
  • Because they perform in high school gyms, the props need to fit through a standard 36" doorway. Sometimes we have double doors, but we can't count on it.
  • The prop may be required to support the weight of several performers who are spinning on top of them at the same time.
  • Props must be setup and taken down by the parents (finding parents to volunteer is sometimes an issue. We usually have 10-12 parents.
  • Because they are paid for by parents and fund raising, cost is also an issue.
  • We usually have 2 months or less to plan, design, order materials and build. Tweaking goes on for the remainder of the season.
  • Props need to be able to fit in the storage space available (this year that's a 24' box truck and the unused shower in the girl's locker room (did you know kids don't shower after gym class anymore?).

Of course the props are never just 36" in width. Here are some of the things we've been asked (told) by our director to design and build over the past couple of years (and saying "no" or "we can't do that" doesn't seem to be an option).

  1. There was a gorilla hand painted on the floor (about 40 feet long), and we needed to make it look like the fingers were coming up through the floor. The index finger alone was 13 feet tall.
  2. We needed to make a 36' diameter "conference" table that had a 30' diameter hole in the middle of it. This needed to support the weight of several performers at a time.
  3. We were asked to make a full-scale replica of the jungle gym from the movie the Birds. This needed to be on wheels because the kids moved it during the performance, and support up to 16 kids performers at a time. The jungle gym ended up being 15' long by 12' tall when fully assembled.
  4. For the same show that needed the jungle gym, we needed 5 "shower" props (you probably guessed it was a Hitchcock theme). No running water (we've done that in the past, however), but they were 8' tall by 6' diameter and needed to be backlit with spotlights for each shower that were battery operated and turned on and off by remote control.
  5. This year we were tasked with creating a 43' long bridge that had three gaps in it big enough for performers to walk through. Also, it needs to support the weight of several performers on top of it at the same time. Because it is over 6' tall (77" to be exact to the) it required a safety guard rail, per WGI rules. We also needed to create 5 columns to hide the gaps in the bridge and to hide the kids as they climb up and down it. Also, the kids needed to be able to hand upside down underneath it from their knees (all 16 of them, and yes, they're bats in the show). There are other requirements too detailed to mention as well.

Here are a couple of pictures of the 36' diameter table, the 8' tall backlit showers, the jungle gym (same year and show as the showers) and the bridge.

Remember we have to deal with all of the parameters listed above. All of these props fit through a 36" wide door, can be setup and broken down in under 3 minutes total time (1 1/2 min. to setup and 1 1/2 min to break down), support the weight of several performers, fit in our storage space and are affordable on our budget ($3000-$4000 max).

So this is how I use my engineering education these days. It's fun, challenging, and keeps me involved in my daughters' activity. How do you use your engineering degree for non-work activities or hobbies?

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#1

Re: What are the most unusual or unexpected uses for your engineering knowledge?

02/18/2016 6:47 PM

Wow!

I have a retired firefighter friend who now does stage props for local dramas. Maybe I'll get a chance to help with that.

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#2

Re: What are the most unusual or unexpected uses for your engineering knowledge?

02/18/2016 7:20 PM

Cannot really chose one so here are a few from my list.....

1) Designing what have (apparently) been systems and solutions that no one (be they customer or world wide suppliers) have seen before to some very strange problems.

2) Designing solutions to humanely kill pests to protect our local wildlife and forestry industry

3) Working with NASA (be it a small involvement) on a self-roving Mars rover mission (which they canceled in the end)

4) Answering questions on CR4

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#12
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Re: What are the most unusual or unexpected uses for your engineering knowledge?

02/19/2016 10:53 AM

Answering questions on CR4 definitely applies! Hadn't thought of that one.

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#3

Re: What are the most unusual or unexpected uses for your engineering knowledge?

02/18/2016 7:28 PM

That looks like a fun challenge. I can't think of anything I've done to rival that.

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#13
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Re: What are the most unusual or unexpected uses for your engineering knowledge?

02/19/2016 10:57 AM

Lyn, it alternates between fun, frustrating, stressful, and satisfying - sometimes all at the same time! Just when we think we have a finished design, our director will walk over with a sly smile on his face asking us for something we hadn't planned on and seems impossible. The satisfying part is when we make the impossible a reality, which we are usually able to do. Of course, all that does is make the director think he can keep raising the bar and asking for more and more and....

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#14
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Re: What are the most unusual or unexpected uses for your engineering knowledge?

02/19/2016 12:05 PM

Working with artistic people can be a challenge, for sure.

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#15
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Re: What are the most unusual or unexpected uses for your engineering knowledge?

02/20/2016 1:44 AM

enough to make you think mutiny, revolution even

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#4

Re: What are the most unusual or unexpected uses for your engineering knowledge?

02/18/2016 7:30 PM

I think the prop designers and builders should get awards too, like at the Oscars. DISCLAIMER: I know 8320 and what's involved in designing and building these props. Amazing work.

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#5
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Re: What are the most unusual or unexpected uses for your engineering knowledge?

02/18/2016 7:43 PM

Seeing the kids succeed is enough recognition and makes all the time and effort worth it. It's also fun to have that "shop floor" feeling again. I've also met a great group of talented dads, so I think I've been rewarded enough!

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#6

Re: What are the most unusual or unexpected uses for your engineering knowledge?

02/18/2016 7:52 PM

OK, this isn't as glamorous as stage props, but back in the early 80's we made some of the first radio tracking collars for Polar Bears. Yes, they were white. Not sure about battery life, but it couldn't have been too long.

Later we made solar powered tracking beacons for Sea Otters that were about the size of tennis balls with clear tops.

We did lots of work for NSA and CIA. A co-worker actually manufactured and installed spy cameras inside Bic lighters. Imagine the size of the film. 20+ pictures and the agent sent the camera back for film development. He literally had his own machine shop behind locked doors.

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#7

Re: What are the most unusual or unexpected uses for your engineering knowledge?

02/18/2016 9:01 PM

Posting here...

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Re: What are the most unusual or unexpected uses for your engineering knowledge?

02/19/2016 2:13 AM

I was shipwrecked on an island for many years with others and had to construct all manner of devices from materials only available on the island....no wait I'm thinking of Gilligan's Island....I try to get up every day, that's about all I'm willing to commit to....

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#9

Re: What are the Most Unusual or Unexpected Uses for Your Engineering Knowledge?

02/19/2016 8:41 AM

Lots of accessories for our firework displays. The last was 4ft diameter twin back to back contra-rotating Catherine wheels.

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#10

Re: What are the Most Unusual or Unexpected Uses for Your Engineering Knowledge?

02/19/2016 8:55 AM

Tutoring my daughter through her college math!

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#11
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Re: What are the Most Unusual or Unexpected Uses for Your Engineering Knowledge?

02/19/2016 9:50 AM

I hear you. I have the same challenge trying to help my daughter with her common core high school math!

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#16

Re: What are the Most Unusual or Unexpected Uses for Your Engineering Knowledge?

02/20/2016 11:48 PM

I use my engineering experience to demonstrate the interesting facts through simple experiments to School children and create awareness among the children about the role engineers in sustainable development.

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#17

Re: What are the Most Unusual or Unexpected Uses for Your Engineering Knowledge?

02/21/2016 11:44 AM

Puppet Bike would the most unusual and maybe the most unexpected as well... It's exactly what it sounds like.

..I was also charged with building a working fun house for a photo shoot at an art gallery.

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Re: What are the Most Unusual or Unexpected Uses for Your Engineering Knowledge?

02/23/2016 8:47 AM

A puppet bike is definitely a new one for me. I don't imagine there are lots of plans out there you can Google for puppet bikes.

Speaking of Google...all of the ads I get now on the internet are for parts I've searched for and purchased for these winterguard props.

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#19

Re: What are the Most Unusual or Unexpected Uses for Your Engineering Knowledge?

04/13/2016 11:20 AM

Just a follow-up on this post (and an opportunity to brag and promote what I think is an amazing activity). The bridge in the picture above is supposed to be a representation of the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin Texas, which is home to over 1.5 million bats. It is ~40 feet long, 77 inches tall (without the guard railings), and comes apart into four 8-ft sections (connected by draw bridges). It took countless hours to build and refine. It needed to be able to support 16 "bats" hanging from it (4 kids per section), allow the kids to dance, spin flags and rifles from the top of it, be portable (it was on wheels, with wheel chocks to keep it in place), fit through a standard 36" wide door (double doors were preferred), and most importantly, be safe (notice the removable safety railing).

Here is a link to a short clip of the performance at World Championships, shot from behind the prop - https://www.instagram.com/p/BD_R0lfIHWo/

All of our hard work, along with the hundreds of hours spent practicing by our kids and coaches paid off, as the team went undefeated this year and took home the Gold Medal at Winter Guard World Championships in Dayton, Ohio last week (we also were voted Fan Favorite for the 3rd year in a row)!

If you have daughters who don't play a traditional team sport and are unfamiliar with color guard or winter guard (as the indoor competitive sport is called), I encourage you to check it out - Winter Guard International (WGI). Although Winter Guard is most popular in states like Indiana, Ohio, Texas, California, and Florida, it can be found all over the US, and in Canada, the Netherlands, England, Malaysia, Thailand and Japan. If your high school doesn't have a team, there may be independent teams in your area as well. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention that this activity isn't just for girls, it is coed, and there are even some all-male teams. Our team had 15 girls and 1 boy (who had fan girls from the teams we competed against all over our local circuit).

This sport has provided my daughters with a competitive team activity that combines athleticism with dance, gymnastics, and theatrical components. Also, due to the props, fund raising and other activities needed to support the team, the parents (and especially dads) get an opportunity to be involved with their daughter's activity long after most of us have finished coaching softball or soccer when they are little. It has also created life-long friendships for both the kids and the parents.

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#20

Re: What are the Most Unusual or Unexpected Uses for Your Engineering Knowledge?

04/26/2016 11:37 AM

I just came across this post, and I recalled this from a previous post....

And it was a very satisfying application of engineering and physics

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