Dean Swenson graduated from Cal Poly SLO (California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo) in June 2010.  He majored in Mechanical Engineering.  Dean and his teammates worked on the Adaptable Indoor/Off-Road Powered Wheelchair.  His team of four MEs (teamed with one Business major later) went from idea to concepts, to design, procurement and manufacturing, assembly, test, and delivery of a powered wheelchair.  The key innovation was that the wheelchair physically adapted/transformed to optimize its suspension geometry and performance for both indoor and off-road environments.   

Where are you employed?  MariPro - L3Harris Goleta
Xray Dean.jpg 2.79 MB

What is your job title and what are your job responsibilities?  (New job, 7 months) Lead Mechanical Engineer:  Create architectural-level mechanical systems solutions and guide the detailed design of components and subassemblies for cabled undersea sensor networks, as well as the special equipment required to deploy these systems in extreme environments. 

(Prior job at Raytheon Vision Systems, a decade) Principal Mechanical Engineer:  Responsible from design through delivery for cutting edge camera modules for wavelengths across the Electro-Optical and Infra-Red (EO/IR) spectrum, supporting missions on land, in air, and from space.  Starting as an intern, I held roles as the responsible engineer on production programs, cross-functional team lead on aggressive development-to-production programs, technical area lead for vacuum integrity of sensor Dewar packages (materials, design, manufacturing and cleaning processes, leak detection, Residual Gas Analysis (RGA), and vacuum life analysis), lead

Describe your experience working with QL+.  How can I adequately describe being part of the first team with the first project to sit down with Jon and Scott Monett, and learn about this brand new program called QL+ that had sponsored a brand new lab at Cal Poly SLO and was seeking to improve the lives of good people who had served others?  Our team could hardly believe the opportunity we had.   We were honored to get to know our “Challenger” (our project predates that term); this created a very personal connection to our project for me, and I believe was the impetus that took our team from having “lots of potential” to “mission success”.

Our teammate Brian Robinson (first person featured in the QL+ Alumni Spotlight) had hatched the idea to design a wheelchair that adapts to two very different environments:  1) indoor, where minimal footprint, optimized height, and rigid structure are important, and  2) off-road, where stability, compliant suspension, and power are important.  The biggest challenge was managing to go from an idea to realizing the complexity required to meet requirements, to completing the design and build of an engineered electro-mechanical system in less than 9 months, especially when there were long-lead components to integrate and structural components to build from raw materials. 

This project provided a real-world exercise in using engineering practices, including free-body diagrams, statics, dynamics, strengths of materials, machine design, thermodynamics, circuits design, controls, and systems design and integration. 

One area that I learned the critical importance of, which isn’t emphasized in coursework as much as the above practices, is ergonomics.  Before this project, ergonomics had struck me as a distraction from a proper focus on function in favor of achieving a pleasing form; I was wrong.  Ergonomics can be as critical to the function and effectiveness of a device as the strength of the structure or any other engineering consideration.  In our case, if ergonomics didn’t meet our “Challenger’s” requirements, the performance of the rest of the system couldn’t be utilized. 

This challenge with QL+ remains the most emotionally rewarding project I’ve worked on, primarily due to the very personal nature of it, combined with the sheer magnitude of the challenge we overcame as a team. 

Did your involvement with QL+ aid in the path you chose to follow after graduation?  After graduation, I continued growing in the EO/IR world that I had interned in.  EO/IR in the Aerospace and Defense arena focuses on different technologies and missions than we pursued with QL+, but the awareness that my engineering choices and drive to execute will have a direct effect on others’ lives will remain with me throughout my career. 

What is your fondest memory of working on the QL+ Challenge?  This is impossible to answer satisfactorily because I have many very special memories of our QL+ project. 

Just a few memories: 
-  Sitting down with Jon Monett and Scott for the first time, and realizing that there were people who were personally invested in making a difference in people’s lives, were taking us (students) seriously to support an incredibly challenging idea, and were giving us latitude to create our own workspace and share the start of a new legacy. 
-  Walking into the brand new, empty QL+ lab and starting work to make our workbenches, set up the tool and storage systems, haul in furniture, and warm up the coffee maker. 
-  Receiving raw materials to start cutting, machining, and welding a custom product we had designed. 
-  Assembling our components and performing validation testing on the mechanisms and structures we had designed. 
-  Hunting down the UPS truck in the middle of San Luis Obispo on the morning of our final project presentation, receiving our high-torque motors from the gracious UPS driver out at the curb I found him at, rushing back to the QL+ lab to integrate the motors, testing the completed assembly (everything worked!!!), and presenting our project in the nick of time while letting people demonstrate the wheelchair’s capability on nearby terrain. 
-  Our “Challenger’s” smile when she saw the completed chair. 
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If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself when you first started
working on the QL+ Challenge?
 Document everything!  There’s probably a more tactful way to phrase this, but by relative measures our team seemed “above par” at documenting our ideas, decisions, plans, designs, analyses, test results, etc..  That said, there was room for improvement and I encourage myself and others to make efficient documentation (timely and complete) a major skill.  This is something I’ve practiced during my career, and looking back now at my senior project documentation I see areas that should have been more complete.  Memories fade or even change, so having documentation that explains not only “what” you did, but also “why” (also what you didn’t do, and why), is invaluable when you need to reference your work in the future (you should assume that this WILL happen). 

Two more tips that we successfully practiced: 
-  Manage workloads.  Create a phased plan for executing your project, and work as a team to fairly divide the workload for each phase.  Do not take “getting help” as a personal slight; in fact, get good at tactfully asking for help when needed (and offering help when you see a need).  Revisit this plan and assignments as often as necessary, and be ready to make changes as often as necessary to meet your mission. 
-  Perform key system trades ASAP, and identify long-lead components that need to be procured.  Do any analysis required to specify the exact long-lead component configurations you need, then commit.  Document the assumptions you made that led you to these component configurations; the rest of the details of your system design will then revolve around these critical components. 
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The purpose of Where Are They Now? is to highlight our QL+ Alumni:  the life-changing work they did to help our Challengers and how their experiences with QL+ shaped their current professions.