Paying Attention in Class Pays Off for WPI Student

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WORCESTER, Mass. The value of a college education is sometimes hard to put into words. But Charles L. Lincicum of Danvers, Mass., can put it into numbers: $2.4 million. That's how much money a WPI night course he took has saved his company, he says.

The course, MFE 520, Design and Analysis of Manufacturing Processes, is taught by Christopher A. Brown, associate professor of mechanical engineering and interim director of the Department of Manufacturing Engineering. Lincicum, who holds a bachelor's degree in manufacturing engineering from Northeastern University, has been in the manufacturing field for about 27 years. Employed at Standard-Thomson Corp. in Waltham, Mass., he is studying at WPI part time and expects to complete his master's degree in operations management and information technology in December 1999.

Lincicum took Brown's course last fall. He says he enjoyed it tremendously and earned an A. His company is still reaping the rewards, which began after the first week when he began applying the axiomatic design method he learned in class. "We were doing a redesign of our production facility," he says. "The axiomatic approach to engineering design I learned from Professor Brown shaped all aspects of the redesignžfrom the floor layout to details of parts handling. Before the end of the term my company had already realized $2.4 million in savings."

That figure, confirmed by the company's finance office, is expected to rise. "We would not have been able to do nearly as well without what I learned in the course," he says. "It has significantly advanced my company's approach to the design and analysis of manufacturing processes and systems." In January, Lincicum was promoted from senior tool designer to manager of manufacturing engineering and was recently named vice president for engineering at Standard-Thomson. The promotions, he notes, may have arisen in part from the "homework" he did at work.

Brown explains that the design portion of his course focuses on an approach developed by Nam P. Suh, head of MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering, and his associates. Brown's students also use a text authored by Suh. "I was first exposed to the approach when Suh spoke at the University of Vermont while I was a graduate student there. The basic elements of the methodžthat good design must fulfill two axioms: maximize independence and minimize informationžstuck with me. This works for anything from designing your vacation to designing the F-22."

He points out that there's a downside to learning how to tell good design from bad. At the beginning of the course he tells his students, "Once you can see the difference, you will see poor designs everywhere of the course, and you will share my frustration that with a little more and better thought they could have been good designs."

Brown, who commutes to WPI from his home in Norwich, Vt., is also known for his accomplishments in the world of skiing. He was a ski coach at the University of Vermont, where he earned his B.A., M.S. and Ph.D., is an expert on skiing injuries and teaches a course on the technology of alpine skiing.

Before coming to WPI in 1989, he taught and did research in materials science at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and used Suh's axiomatic approach while working at Atlas Copco's European Research Center in Switzerland. He holds a patent on a method of fractal analysis for rough surfaces and, supported by the National Science Foundation, is still active in that area of research.

Offered each fall, MFE 520 is one of four core courses required for a master's degree in manufacturing engineering; it is also offered as an elective for other majors, such as management, mechanical engineering or materials science and engineering.

"I try to make the course relevant to working engineers, who make up 80 to 90 percent of the course," Brown says. "One positive indication that I am succeeding is that about two weeks after we start on Suh's design method, the students tell me they have already started to apply the method at work." He is very pleased by the results at Standard-Thomson. "This shows a fantastic ROI (return on investment) for our graduate courses."

WPI is an independent technological university founded in 1865. In 1997, U.S. CollegesGuide and 35th among the top national institutions in the magazine's Best College Values report.