Industrial Engineering Capstone Team Modernizes Parachute Inspection for U.S. Army

Four industrial engineering students received several awards, including the Capstone Day Judges Award, for their Parachute Quality Assurance Modernization Capstone Design project presented at the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers Conference in Montréal. The students, who worked with the U.S. Army Personnel Airdrop Systems team, digitized a paper-based system for recording parachute component measurements.

A team of four industrial engineering students presented their Parachute Quality Assurance Modernization Capstone Design project at the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers, or IISE, Conference in Montréal. For the past two semesters, Jake Austgen, Micah Kim, Katherine Polum, and Carson Schauer, all E’24, have worked with the U.S. Army Personnel Airdrop Systems, or PADS, team at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center to design a process for digitizing parachute inspection data in real-time. The majority of the fall semester was spent meeting with the client, defining the problem, and researching potential solutions. The spring semester kicked off with a solution path presentation to PADS leadership before the team devoted the next few months to designing and iterating the solution.

Beverly Kris Jaeger-Helton, the Industrial Engineering Capstone Director at Northeastern, is the project advisor. She worked for several weeks with PADS leadership to develop the project proposal.

“We seek out real-world projects that present a problem to be solved and do not currently have a solution; this is the nature of Capstone,” Jaeger-Helton says.

(left to right) Kim, Schauer, Austgen, and Polum presenting their project.

All potential projects for each offering of Capstone are presented to the students for screening and bidding at the outset of Capstone. Teams can then rank the project options that they are most interested in through a bidding process. Right from the start, the Parachute Quality Assurance Modernization project caught the team’s attention because of the expansive range of possible solutions and the impact that their work would have.

“This project was our top choice because there was a client, and the problem statement was broad,” Austgen says. “That meant we would be solving a real problem that would have a real impact, and we had the freedom to take it whatever direction we wanted.”

Finding a way to more efficiently ensure that the PADS team’s parachutes were safe and secure was imperative. Each month, up to 13 parachutes are inspected manually, but PADS saw room for improvement in how the process was recorded. Before the Capstone team began their project, the process consisted of configuring inspection sheets where parachute component measurements would be recorded on paper inspection sheets. These inspection sheets were then scanned as PDFs and uploaded into a secure file network. After examining the process, the Capstone team clearly identified several issues, including room for error in manually recorded data, a lack of digitized individual measurements, and difficulty in searching and analyzing historical data. As such, these students needed to determine the best way to digitize the data.

The team considered several options for data digitization, including Microsoft Power Apps, handheld devices, intelligent character recognition, or ICR, third party software, and Excel Visual Basic for Applications, or VBA. After running multiple attribution tests based on factors that PADS asked them to consider, they chose Excel VBA as the primary solution for modernizing the inspection process. They also recommended ICR as a way for the Internal U.S. Army team to research historical data and the Tulip operations platform as a long-term fully integrated inspection system. Determining the best method for achieving their goals was a long process, but it was one that was well worth it.

“This project required a great deal of patience, [and] it took a lot of discipline to not actively work on the solution but stay in research mode,” Polum says. “Our success was attributed to this patience, [and] an exhaustive research phase let us charge through our design and development.”

The Capstone team examining and measuring a parachute with PADS team members.

After months of development, the Capstone team created the Excel-based Inspection Tool, or EBIT. To digitize inspection data and replace paper inspection sheets, the team configured inspection workbooks and VBA scripts, which made it easier than ever to record and store all the necessary inspection information. By making real-time feedback now possible and saving roughly two hours per inspection that would otherwise be spent validating measurements, the Capstone team created a successful and efficient tool that the PADS team approved of. They also created an instructional video, a PADS facilitator, and an inspector facilitator to provide as instructional material. Using their time wisely, the team went above and beyond to make the most of their efforts. With a different team, it might have been easy to get bogged down during such a long-term project, but Austgen says the team was able to find a balance that worked for them.

“Nobody was fine with delivering a subpar product, so we held each other accountable and trusted each other to get things done, but we also kept it light,” Austgen says.

Jaeger-Helton, who is also an MIE Teaching Professor and the Director for Industrial Engineering Undergraduate Curriculum at Northeastern, has overseen the Capstone team’s work every step of the way. She sees Capstone as an opportunity to show a more expansive image of what industrial engineering can accomplish, and she says she’s extremely proud of the team.

“What’s in store for them is spotlighting some really interesting applications for industrial engineering,” Jaeger-Helton says. “Many people tend to think of [industrial engineering as] primarily manufacturing… but there’s so much more to it than that.”

The team at work at U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center.

The Capstone team received several awards for their committed work on the Parachute Quality Assurance Modernization project. At the Industrial Engineering Capstone Awards, the team was chosen by a panel of jurors to receive the Capstone Day Judges Award. They also won the Most Dedicated Award among their peers as part of the Student Choice Awards. Leading up to the IISE Conference, the team was awarded the Outstanding Capstone Senior Design Award. They are all grateful for the team bonding and real-world experience they gained along the way.

“I could not have asked for a better Capstone team,” Polum says. “Working with them was an invaluable experience. Our strengths complemented each other’s.”

Related Faculty: Beverly Kris Jaeger-Helton

Related Departments:Mechanical & Industrial Engineering