BOZEMAN — For the fourth year in a row, a team of Montana State University engineering students has won a national competition that pits their problem-solving skills against a real-life case study.

Members of the competition team, from left, Laura Coffey, Joey Tschida, Morten Bakke and Brita Whisler. (Photo courtesy Durward Sobek.)

 Morten Bakke, Laura Coffey, Joey Tschida and Brita Whisler took first place in the Material Handling Industry Association's 2018-2019 design competition. The honor comes with a $2,000 prize.

 "Our team is competing against all the top industrial engineering programs in the country, so to come out first is a big deal," said Durward Sobek, team adviser and professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in MSU's Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering.

 Whisler, a senior majoring in industrial and management systems engineering, said that "it was great to win," especially because the challenge posed to the team -- designing a proposed facility for a pharmaceutical business -- seemed daunting at times.

 "We were given pretty much an empty building and had to figure out all the layout and the equipment," Whisler said of the five-week project the team tackled last spring.

"It was very open-ended," said Bakke, also a senior in industrial and management systems engineering. "We got to choose how to solve the problem."

 By applying what they learned from classes in industrial optimization as well as from their own research, the team crafted a proposed plan that included manufacturing equipment as well as office spaces for management and sales staff, Bakke said. The design was driven by the team's interpretation of the case company's past and predicted sales and production data.

 According to Sobek, that's exactly what he hopes that each year's team will get out of the challenge -- finding ways to navigate ambiguity and gain traction on a big problem while working as a team. Although the name of the company and some other details are changed, the case study is based on a real business situation.

 The team worked on the challenge as one part of their capstone project, which all engineering seniors must complete in order to graduate. To round out their capstones, the students also worked with other student teams on projects with local sponsors. Bakke's team partnered with local dog toy producer West Paw to streamline their manufacturing process. Whisler's team helped re-organize MSU's student orientation to reduce wait times for students and staff. Both projects resulted in recommendations that could then be implemented to benefit the sponsors.

 Bakke is continuing his studies before entering MSU's industrial and management engineering seamless master's program, in which students can earn the graduate degree in conjunction with their bachelor's by extending their studies by one year. Whisler, a Seattle native, has accepted a job at Boeing upon graduating in December. Coffey and Tschida graduated in May.

 "They were a terrific team," Sobek said. The first-place finish "speaks to quality of faculty here at MSU and the quality of the students we attract."

 - By Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service -