In our third installment of Eyes of an Engineer, we introduce you to Tori Zellerhoff and Margot Hughan. They began working at MTI as part of their capstone thesis for Notre Dame’s Master’s Program in Entrepreneurship, Technology, & Innovation (ESTEEM).
Combining technology with entrepreneurship, the two developed a business plan and go-to-market strategy for MTI’s latest technology, low force friction welding.
Find out how they got started, what they learned at MTI, and what they enjoyed most about the experience.
The ESTEEM program is an 11-month master of science degree program at the University of Notre Dame. Throughout the program, students with strong technical backgrounds acquire the skills and experience needed to launch their own businesses, become innovators within companies, and leaders of dynamic teams.
Both Tori and Margot earned their undergraduate degrees in mechanical engineering prior to joining the program.
Tori chose mechanical engineering because it combines her passions for math and science.
Margot, however, first pursued civil engineering. She then switched to mechanical engineering because she felt it was the most relevant to real world issues. “I really enjoyed the mechanics and how things moved,” said Margot. “It works how my brain works.”
The Capstone Project
Within weeks of being accepted into the prestigious program, ESTEEM students receive a list of potential projects for their capstone thesis. The projects utilize their technical skills while also offering real-world business experience.
After selecting a project of interest—which for Tori and Margot was low force friction welding—the interviewing process begins.
“It’s a two-way interview,” said Tori. “You both have to accept afterwards. MTI selects top candidates and the top candidates have to select them back.”
The ESTEEM students then spend 11-months understanding the underlying technology, performing customer interviews, completing competitive and intellectual property analysis, and developing a go-to-market strategy along with financial forecasts and enterprise valuations.
Since 2015, MTI has sponsored three ESTEEM students.
Understanding the Technology
To get started, Tori and Margot first utilized their technical backgrounds to gain a better understanding of friction welding.
The two ESTEEM students were only vaguely familiar with the technology prior to working on their capstone project.
Tori was first introduced to the technology in her heat transfer class at the University of Portland.
“At the beginning of the semester, we had to submit a video of something to do with heat and heat transfer,” said Tori. “One of the videos that someone submitted was of friction welding. That was the only experience I had with it.”
Margot, on the other hand, was first exposed to friction welding in one of Dr. Steven Schmid’s manufacturing classes at the University of Notre Dame. Her textbook featured a short blurb about the solid-state joining process. And, the text included an excerpt about MTI’s accomplishments.
“We really just didn’t know anything about friction welding,” said Margot. “Everything we know about friction welding, we learned at MTI.”
To get up to speed, the two ESTEEM students had multiple meetings with Dan Adams, MTI’s president and CEO, along with Zach Roelofs, a process engineer at MTI.
Validating New Markets
Once they had a thorough understanding of friction welding, Margot and Tori then spent several months performing customer interviews to identify market needs.
“Interviews were a great way to get the most honest feedback possible,” said Margot. “We learned through ESTEEM that if you tell someone what you have, you’ll get a lot of positive feedback. But, if you ask them about their problems without being prompted, it’s not even comparable how much more validation that provides.”
A Pivotal Moment
Putting what they learned into action, their favorite moment came when they were on the phone with one of the largest welding contractors in the world. They were speaking to an engineer who had over 30 years of experience.
The engineer was describing the pain points of his industry when he declared that friction welding is the way of the future. He said the two drawbacks of the solid-state joining process were cost and machine size.
“We were so excited!” said Margot. “We hung up the phone, and we were screaming in our chairs!”
That’s because low force friction welding uses a fraction of the force, allowing MTI to reduce the cost and size of a friction welding machine. The conversation further validated pursing a market they’d spent months researching.
“Our director was actually in the room next to us, and after we hung up the phone, he said he’d never seen someone get so excited about an interview,” said Tori.
Bringing it All Together
Based on the information they gathered from these interviews, the two then performed a competitive and intellectual property analysis, developed a go-to-market strategy, and created a financial forecast for low force friction welding.
In May, they successfully defended their thesis. And, after graduation, the two leveraged what they learned at MTI for their future careers.
Their Favorite Part of The Experience
“My favorite part of the experience has definitely been the people,” said Margot. “We’ve really gotten to know a lot of people, and everyone has been so incredibly helpful in making sure we understand.”
During the project, the two got the chance to work alongside process engineers, business executives, and research institutes.
Tori agreed, explaining one of her favorite aspects was learning from Dan Adams and Bob Besse, MTI’s VP of Sales & Marketing.
“Coming in, they were really helpful with getting us up to speed and helping us in any way they could throughout the process,” said Tori.
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