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Engineering with an entrepreneurial mindset

Have you ever wanted to install an overhead light fixture but not deal with the headache required to make it a reality?

Re-wiring in any building is taxing process. Ripping apart drywall and placing the desired wiring and putting it all back up is annoying for even the most experienced contractors. Matthew Bilsky, current adjunct professor and recent doctoral recipient in the department of mechanical engineering and mechanics, discovered a solution through an innovative way of thinking.

Bilsky’s recently finished dissertation, “Entrepreneurially minded engineering: design and development of a novel snake-like robot,” is a model example of a new shift in the teaching of engineering students. Engineering with an entrepreneurial mindset has become the new standard for teaching the next generation of students.

The Snake-like Robot

In the summer of 2013, Bilsky was working full-time as a contractor for a landlord off-campus after earning his master’s in mechanical engineering from Lehigh and was brainstorming about what he would do for his dissertation.

"I decided that I was going to build something, I’m going to sell something," said Bilsky. "I was just working and looking at all the opportunities and came up with the idea, thinking, wouldn’t this be cool."

He saw the amount of waste and headaches required to re-wire a building with drywall already in place. In most cases, ripping apart the drywall and then replacing it is the only option. Bilsky aimed to solve this common problem for construction workers and contractors.

The end result was a one-inch snake-like robot that can enter the wall through an outlet-size hole. The robot has a camera on its head to allow the operator to see what he or she is doing. It also has the ability to drill through studs, eliminating the need to open up walls to run wires. The robot drives through where the wire will be placed and then can pull the wire back through, saving time, money and frustration.

Each link on the robot can rotate in plane, nutate in space, and extend forward and backward, allowing a full range of motion for the robot and giving the operator full control while the robot is moving inside the wall. While it is impossible for the robot to generate the torque required for drilling internally, Bilsky and his team have designed a way to transmit power from outside the wall to the drill using a flexible drive shaft.

The product has the potential to help revolutionize the way houses are wired.

In addition to being useful for contractors and electricians, the robot has an array of other uses, including the next technology of robotic arms in space exploration and to help aid those trapped under the rubble of fallen buildings, trees or other objects after natural disasters and other crisis situations.

“Every time you take a step back is when you see the implications that his work can have." Bilsky explained. "Once I realized how to approach the drilling problem, it became a freight train, what are all the different things we could do with this?"

Bilsky is now filing for the patents on the different aspects of his robot and expects a product launch with his company Impossible Incorporated LLC in the Spring of 2018. His work with the robot earned him a spot as a finalist in the 2016 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in the ‘use-it’ category.

An entrepreneurial mindset

A prime example of the Rossin College's entrepreneurial mindset is its masters program in technical entrepreneurship. Bilsky took the technical entrepreneurship classes as an undergrad and graduate, and now helps to teach them.

The Master's Degree in Technical Entrepreneurship (TE) teaches students the basics of turning ideas into reality through start-ups or working with going concerns. In this one-year residential program, students take 12 courses exclusive to the master’s degree curriculum, offered in a space designed and exclusive to the program, complete with 3D printers and a variety of electronic and prototyping tools.

Now in its fifth year, the program was created to satisfy society’s need and thirst for entrepreneurial spirit and skills and falls right in line with the KEEN partnership, adding the entrepreneurial mindset to engineering skills.

Four career paths have emerged from those who have left with the degree: launching their own companies, being an asset to already established startups, innovating established companies and teaching a new generation of entrepreneurs.

So far, 84 students have graduated from the program, and it is sure to continue preparing students for the world of entrepreneurial talent. Many students leave the program and make an immediate impact.

Bilsky thinks that Lehigh has the best of both worlds: a small-school feel with big-school opportunities and resources, including the Baker Institute, who fosters innovative programs. Lehigh is flexible enough to allow you to do what you want to do, he said.

“I always tell students: if you want to do something at Lehigh, go find a professor and they’ll probably let you do it and support you,” he said. “With the right petition, you could do what you want.”

A key takeaway for Bilsky’s from his experience at Lehigh and with his robot: never lose sight of the big picture.

-Matthew Cossel '17 is a student-writer with the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.

January 12, 2017

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