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How Two MSU Engineers Created One of the World’s Most Popular Engineering Software Tools

Ronald Averill is no stranger to persevering through tough times. He’s experienced hardship as an engineer, as an entrepreneur and as an educator. Throughout his career, he’s kept a tech company afloat through two major economic downturns, and he’s now helping his students persevere through the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Averill is a problem solver and his experience as an entrepreneur highlights the unique quality he brings to the table as an educator. Averill is someone who’s used to revolutionizing the field and committed to expanding our collective knowledge of mechanical engineering.

From Medicine to Mechanical Engineering

It may be surprising given his success, but Averill’s original career plans were in medicine, not engineering. He wanted to be a doctor and heard he’d have a higher chance at getting into medical school with an engineering undergraduate degree.

“All kinds of schools, including medical schools, want engineers because we’re problem solvers,” he explains. “We approach issues from various perspectives, and that manner of thinking can be applied to anything.”

Averill earned an undergraduate degree in engineering science, but he later discovered he was uninterested in many of the relevant job opportunities within medicine.

During his search, however, inspiration for his true career path struck. Averill got to know several engineering graduate students and found himself fascinated by their work.
At a meeting during his final semester, an advisor looked at Averill’s transcript, considered his newfound interests and said, “I think you’re going to graduate school.”

While getting a master’s degree in engineering mechanics, Averill found he enjoyed working as a teacher’s assistant. He decided to pursue his Ph.D., which solidified his passion for academic research and teaching.

Life, however, had another exciting opportunity in store that would elevate his career both as a professional engineer and professor of engineering.

Entering the Private Sector with Red Cedar Technology

Averill considers himself lucky to have earned a position teaching at Michigan State University as a recent doctoral graduate. In the midst of his teacher training, Averill met another MSU faculty member, Erik Goodman, who introduced Averill to a new concept: design optimization. With funding from General Motors, they spent seven years researching design optimization.

In 1999, the two took the fruits of their labor to GM, who immediately recognized the value of what they’d created. The idea for Red Cedar Technology was born: A design optimization software company, founded by engineers, to make other engineers’ lives easier.

“The GM leaders we were presenting to looked at each other, then looked at us and said, ‘You have to start a company now,’” Averill said. “We didn’t realize it in the midst of our research, but we had developed a technology to solve problems they continuously struggled with.”

In fact, what Goodman and Averill had done was create automated design methods based on developments from the Genetic Algorithms Research and Applications Group (GARAGe) and the Computational Structural Mechanics Laboratory, both of which originated at MSU. The methods they created evaluated components for a variety of important qualities that would improve safety, durability, efficiency and cost-effectiveness in vehicles. The same year they took their findings to GM, the two formed Applied Computational Design Associates, Inc., which later became Red Cedar Technology, to do consulting work for industrial clients.

“We could solve in a few weeks problems that GM would work on for nine months to no avail,” Averill elaborated. “We’ve had, at the very least, hundreds of case studies where our technology enabled companies to do things they thought weren’t possible.”

Red Cedar developed a unique design optimization software, which it began using in-house, HEEDS (Hierarchical Evolutionary Engineering Design System). With funding from angel investors, Averill and Goodman were able to hire developers and create a software package their clients could license. The software first went to market in 2003 and continued to gain traction among engineering and technology services companies. The success of HEEDS continued throughout the next two decades, leading CD-adapco to acquire Red Cedar in 2013, and then Siemens to acquire both companies in 2016.

“Creating Red Cedar was harder than anything I’ve ever done,” Averill says, adding that the company was founded right before the tech bubble of the late 1990s and recovered just in time for the 2008 recession. “It was harder than getting my Ph.D.; harder than getting tenure. But it was also the most rewarding.”

Teaching Engineering at Michigan State University

Averill is now more involved in leading MSU’s mechanical engineering master’s program and focused on his research. His passion has shifted from helping clients to helping his students develop their engineering skills, and bringing the expertise of MSU’s faculty into the world of online education.

“With the technology we have today, there’s no reason students outside the East Lansing area can’t take advantage of our classes,” he says.

Averill researches learning as a method and concept, looking for actionable ways to improve student outcomes. As an instructor in an online graduate program, he appreciates the breadth of access that online instruction provides both teachers and students. Not only does the online format make it easier for students to balance a busy professional life with completing coursework, the same strategies that make online learning accessible can also improve in-person instruction. Pre-recorded lectures are just one aspect of his work in the online space that he plans to take back to campus.

“Pre-prepared lectures are concise and efficient,” he says. “It keeps teachers tied to the material so we don’t go on tangents, and students can easily review any lecture points they missed.”

Learning from the Pandemic: Re-Engineering College for the Future

As a teacher, Averill described responding to the pandemic as having to fight two battles at once: the rapid transition to completely online classes and the effects of that change on students.

“I believe pre-recorded lectures will be the way going forward,” Averill elaborates. “We’re trying to take what worked from the pandemic and reimagine the future of the college experience.”

In addition to examining the structure of his courses, Averill focused on building a flexible, supportive environment for students to learn and grow together. His use of technology to help students navigate challenges ranging from stress to feelings of isolation will lay the groundwork for creating even more compelling online classes.

About Michigan State University’s Online Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering

The 100% online Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Michigan State University leverages extensive mechanical engineering research as well as a connection to industrial giants to help mechanical engineers position themselves for success—not only in the classroom, but in transforming the disciplines they work in.

The program offers engineers an opportunity to tailor their education, with two in-demand tracks in thermal-fluids science and in mechanics, dynamics and manufacturing. Online students also benefit from the full support of an R1 research institution and faculty advisement, ensuring their path of study will yield the highest benefit for their individual career goals.

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