HVAC manufacturers are constantly trying to find innovative ways to get their products into the workforce while, at the same time, proving their value and benefits to contractors and technicians. Thousands of products enter the marketplace each and every year, and it can often be difficult to stand out from the pack.
Fluke Corp. released its Fluke Connect software in 2013. The software works with more than 20 different Fluke test tools and allows a user to identify and diagnose problems while securely sharing data, when needed. With endless applications, the manufacturer began brainstorming ways to put the software to the test. In 2014, it launched its Fluke Connect Student Contest, which has turned research and development into an interactive, educational, hands-on endeavor. Through the contest, student teams currently enrolled in two- and four-year colleges, universities, trade/tech schools, and apprenticeship programs tested their — and Fluke Connect software’s — skills, innovation, and business applications.
“Back when we launched Fluke Connect in 2013, we really wanted education to be a part of the launch,” said Toffee Coleman, education marketing manager, Fluke Corp. “This contest ties in with the technician gap and the major trends going forward with technology. We wanted to include the next generation of the HVAC industry and allow them to test tools.”
THE PROGRAM’S PROCESS
The program came about as Coleman and others at Fluke realized they could have teams compete for a prize while also allowing the company to garner essential feedback on tools from the perspective of the students.
“To get the contest up and running, we used a huge push through email and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter,” said Coleman. “We thought of the idea and just ran with it. For that first year, we didn’t anticipate nearly as much engagement as we actually got. This year, we’ve had around the same number of applicants but have seen more interest because of the feedback we got from educators who didn’t participate the first time around.”
The specifics of the contest dictate that teams submit a project that fully utilizes Fluke Connect tools, software, and the app while also improving something like maintenance service, operational efficiency, machine health, or monetary savings.
The projects are then evaluated by a panel of six judges and voted on by the public on Facebook. The winners are determined by which team made the biggest impact using the Fluke Connect system with 75 percent of the decision based on the evaluation by the panel of judges and 25 percent on the public vote.
Thomas Anderson, senior software designer, Fluke Corp. is one of those six judges on the panel reviewing contest submissions. He said the actual process of judging the applications and determining a winner comes down to the thoroughness of their project and the submission itself.
“The students and an advisor provide a multipage document about their ideas, partnerships, and people who are a part of their team,” he said. “We read through those, take notes, and then [the judges] come together as a group and discuss everything. We want it to be a fair process and reward teams who meet all the criteria and earn their way to the top. We ask question like: Did they create an innovative solution and show us a business application and where everything can go? Which of these has the chance to have good success? Which application makes the most sense and is practical?”
Anderson also said the business aspects of each submission are often the deciding factor in determining a winner.
“What we evaluate is each entry’s business case,” he said. “How these submissions are going to show return on investment (ROI), advanced metrics, and how Fluke Connect impacts their bottom line, are all crucial aspects. Last year, the winning team used the system’s remote capability and took data at different times. They then used stored data to solve problems, and I think that’s an example of innovating and using tech skills in combo with a business plan to get work done. It’s about customers being able to save time and money.”
The aforementioned winners of the 2014-15 edition of the contest, from the University of Kentucky, designed a project that conducted live testing of performance parameters on a solar car. Their objective was to increase the efficiency of the solar vehicle by at least 10 percent while saving time by finding and minimizing inefficient components.
Other finalists last year were more HVAC-oriented, including teams that improved the charging efficiency of a/c systems and tested the temperature on friction bit joining welds.
“I was fascinated by the team that used thermal cameras to do friction welding,” said Anderson. “There were teams that had uses around quad copters and wind turbines. It was a wide selection, and there was very little overlap. One of our main concerns when the contest was announced was that there would be 15 applicants all doing the same thing. What actually happened was that schools played to their strengths. It’s great to see what schools are doing and coming up with.”
WINNING IT ALL
This year’s contest was recently won by a team of students from Northwest Iowa Community College in Sheldon, Iowa. Their entry demonstrated how Fluke’s equipment and software could be used to increase the efficiency of technicians and electricians when troubleshooting or performing preventive maintenance.
Among the finalists, a team from Wenatchee Valley College in Wenatchee, Washington, came up with an idea to assemble and test the Fluke tools necessary to perform building tuneups, energy inspections, and diagnostics for college buildings and facilities. Per their submission, the intent of the project was to gather a baseline of the energy usage of HVAC equipment and buildings as a component of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and the Energy User Index (EUI) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Star portfolio. If the EUI energy performance is higher than comparable buildings in Washington State, improvements need to be made. If the EUI rating is low, the buildings are performing well.
A team from Blue Ridge Community and Technical College in Martinsburg, West Virginia, created an entry centering its efforts on improving electrical safety and preventive maintenance. A team from the University of Puerto Rico worked on improving the power quality of facilities on their campus, while a team from the Western Area Career and Technology Center in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, analyzed power consumption and mapped the power distribution system of their school’s administration building.
“The projects produced by the Northwest Iowa Community College team and the other finalists demonstrate how capturing and sharing measurements across team members using mobile technology can speed troubleshooting and improve maintenance practices,” said Leah Friberg, education and public affairs manager, Fluke Corp.
For Northwest Iowa Community College’s team advisor, Mark Bohnet, the contest was really a chance to go beyond simply implementing Fluke tools.
“What was great was that the students used this as an educational opportunity beyond just the aspects of using Fluke’s tools and equipment,” he said. “Our goals were to gain valuable experience and learn from people in the industry, understand functionality, and then develop an understanding of Fluke Connect, which was completely new to us at the start of the project.”
Bohnet said the team grew both socially and as students, learned new skills, and furthered its management and teamwork skills.
“I think there were times when we’d all get frustrated with each other because everyone had specific ideas on how to get things done and thought their way was the best way,” he said. “But, that is part of working within a team. They overcame frustrations and truly came together to complete a project that took many months to complete. This was a great experience, and I couldn’t have asked for a better process.”
Coleman said international companies from as far away as Australia have inquired about replicating the contest, and that the program will continue to grow and evolve in the coming years.
“Last year, we gave applicants a six-week window to apply and the entire fall semester to do their project. This year, based on feedback from participants, we decided to give more time to do projects.”
The next call for entries will take place in the fall of 2016. For more information, visit http://bit.ly/FlukeStudentContest.
Publication date: 4/25/2016