Celebrating inefficiency and complexity

We've all had days like this: It seems it takes 125 steps to do the simplest task. That's when the skills of an engineer most come into play. It is the engineer's task to take the complicated and make it simple. That's the lesson learned by engineering students at Purdue University — by doing the exact opposite.
By Staff May 1, 2005

We’ve all had days like this: It seems it takes 125 steps to do the simplest task. That’s when the skills of an engineer most come into play. It is the engineer’s task to take the complicated and make it simple.

That’s the lesson learned by engineering students at Purdue University — by doing the exact opposite.

For the third straight year, the school’s Society of Professional Engineers won the National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. A team from Ferris State University came in second with a carnival-themed machine, and the University of Texas at Austin placed third.

The annual event turns Goldberg’s cartoon concepts of creating machines that take simple tasks and making them complicated into an engineering exercise in excess. In the process, it taps into the skill of the students to reverse-engineer what they’ve been taught.

“We are all engineering and technology students, and this machine ties together everything we have learned in our classes,” said co-captain Shawn Jordan, a graduate student in computer engineering from Fort Wayne, IN. “It serves as a giant interdisciplinary design project that everyone on the team brings a different background and perspective to.”

This year’s task was to change the batteries in a flashlight and then to turn it on. Contestants had to take at least 20 steps to complete the task and, oh yes, it had to work.

The Purdue team’s effort took 125 steps, complete with a toy rocket launch and a meteor hitting a model of the Earth. In the end, the light from the flashlight shined back down on Earth.

If this sounds like a lark, there are serious engineering principles at work — and an acute understanding of the parallels with real-world issues. “You spend most of your time trying to get the last 1% of things to work,” said senior Kevin Hollingsworth of Zionsville, IN. “Because the machines are built out of junk, they are inherently unreliable. The most important part of building a machine is making those last few pieces of junk reliable.”