The ability to collaborate is vital to a successful career in just about any profession. That’s why Bradley University is focusing on projects that enable students majoring in either business or engineering to work together.

Caterpillar Inc., the major employer in Bradley’s backyard of Peoria, IL, recently partnered with the university to present a real-world challenge. The goal was to create a new air valve for use on a large diesel engine.

A team of seven students (three business majors and four engineering majors) was selected to work with Caterpillar employees to design a prototype valve.

“These types of experiences are priceless for students,” says Lex Akers, Ph.D., dean of the College of Engineering and Technology at Bradley. “The student team gained valuable real-world professional experience working on this project. Teaming with Caterpillar provided the students additional technical knowledge and experience in the practice of engineering and business.”

Finance and marketing students worked with Caterpillar dealers to understand current products and the potential improvements that could be made. They also monitored customer feedback and made sure the new designs met expectations for cost and quality.

The business students then turned to their engineering counterparts to look for ways to make the valve more durable. They completely redesigned the component to achieve a lower fail rate than the existing device.

Meanwhile, the business majors focused on the feasibility of producing the valve in-house. At the end of the eight-month project, the students produced a prototype that was ready for vibration testing.

Several Caterpillar employees interacted with the Bradley students on the project and were involved in the design and manufacturing evaluation.

“As diesel engine requirements continue to evolve to cleaner variations, the requirements on air valves also change due to temperature changes,” explains Tim Wolfe, product manager for the large power systems division at Caterpillar. “We decided to engage the students to see if they could generate new, cost-effective ideas to help in our future strategy.

“We were very pleased with their professionalism and creativity,” says Wolfe. “[Our] employees enjoyed working with the students and valued their input. In the end, the Bradley team designed and prototyped a very good design that is currently undergoing testing.”

“In the real-world, engineers have to work with many different disciplines and face various financial constraints,” adds Akers. “Collaboration and cross-functional interaction are learnable skills. But, it can be difficult, because engineers tend to be more introverted, while business professionals are often more

“One of the keys is learning how to take your language down a level and explain things to the other person so they can understand why the things you’re doing are important,” says Akers. “Short-term projects give students a chance to learn and fail, then do it again. And, by bringing business and engineering students together, we don’t just solve an engineering problem; we design and create the right product for the market.”

To nurture collaborative learning, Bradley is currently building a 270,000-square-foot facility that will house both the business school and the engineering school.

“We’ll be sharing space in the facility, which is scheduled to open next year,” notes Akers. “Students will work on teams to solve various business and engineering challenges.

“The building is designed to be project-based and foster collaboration,” Akers points out. “We modeled it after facilities run by innovative companies such as Apple and Google. The layout will encourage students to sit and talk to each other instead of just sending emails or text messages back and forth.”