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Hard at Work, Facing 'Real World' Test

Student ag engineers get feedback from industry judges.

As noted earlier this week, we're taking part in the 2010 International 1/4 Scale Tractor Student Design Competition in Peoria, Ill., going on this weekend (June 3-6). For a lot of people who see this event the "sound bite" is the tractor pull. It's where visitors head when they come to Expo Gardens to see machines students have built do the actual work of pulling a sled on the track.

But the work begins months before when the competition's latest rules are posted for teams and cover everything from engines to transmissions to exhaust to sound to brakes. The list is pretty long and when the student-built machines show up at the event they must be "tech'd" to be sure they meet basic requirements before they can ever get to the pull.

In addition, tractor teams must submit their tractors to a complete design review for manufacturability, serviceability, ergonomics, safety and test and development. Here a group of judges in each of those categories takes an in-depth look at the machine (as in-depth as 10 minutes can give you) and those judges ask questions, challenge designs, point out issues not only to "rate" the machine, but also to inform students of what a design review is like in the real world.

As one of the competition's organizers notes in a talk about this portion of the competition, as some students justify choices they've made: "They should go through a design review with me in my job." He works for a major ag equipment maker and that process can be rigorous. That's what team judges try to create in this event organized by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers - a real-world experience with information students can put to work in their careers.

Each tractor is reviewed by five different judging teams for serviceability, manufacturability, ergonomics, safety and test and development. That means these machines get a thorough going-over long before any pulling happens, like this tractor from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

Serving as a safety judge, the nitpicking can be very challenging for a student who must be concerned about weight, power, transmissions, and the very idea that the tractor will work when that start attempt happens. Remember, these students are taking at least two engines, and tying them together to run a drivetrain to eventually pull a heavy load. So when a safety judge critiques a machine noting a lack of decals on a pinch point, or sharp edges that can cut if someone is servicing the machine, I'm sure it can be a frustration.

It's all part of the fun. Of course the focus remains on the pull, and the A-teams will be pulling later on Saturday. The A-teams bring new machines to the competition from their schools. The X-teams are groups of students that bring a previous-year tractor to the competition usually as practice or preparation for eventual participation as an A-team. The X-teams must meet similar requirements for design, tech, safety and presentations, so they learn plenty.

Teams even have to make "marketing" presentations to explain who they designed the tractor for, what market they think exists, what special features they have that offer sales potential for their machine. I'll be sitting on a judging team for these presentations too - it's great to watch students compete and presentations take ag engineers well out of their comfort zones too. And that's a good thing, because in their post-graduation careers presentations will be part of the job too.

The team photo is part of the fun, and seeing all the competition machines lined up is fascinating too. While competition can be tough, everyone enjoys being part of the event. Interaction between student teams is important too.

If you want to get more immediate information about the event, you can follow my Twitter account this weekend. Just visit and see pictures and comments about this afternoons pull. Tractors start running after 4 p.m. Central time.

I've cut in a few pictures from this year's competition and will add more to a blog posting Sunday.

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