Published: April 25, 2024 By

Left Photo: left to right, back to front: Row 1: Kevin Chen, Matthew Mayer, Row 2: Kyle Shi, Md Mahmud, Kevin Ash, Row 3: Parker Banks, Rui Wen, Igor Overchuk

Right Photo: left to right: Gabriel Freedberg, Jacob Shulman, Tony Weigand, Tyler Moll, Neil Patel, Luke Soderquist

For the past year, two CU Boulder computer science capstone teams have worked with Festo to create a product recognition tool and a virtual assistant.

Festo is a German company that produces and sells pneumatic and electrical control systems for process automation and provides technical training across many industries. 

The product recognition tool allows users to take a picture of a Festo machine part to get a link to that part so they can replace and order parts that have lost identifying markers. The project involved building an image recognition pipeline that could match digital models of the parts with the photos. 

The virtual assistant allows customers to have a conversation in real time with a 3D avatar that can provide documentation, order status and other customer service tasks via voice input. It combines large language models and database information to support customers. 

Not just a test case

It was important to the sponsors that the 15 students involved in the projects work on something with real-world applications. 

Diethard "Didi" Frank, Leader of Festo’s IT product management big data and AI, and one of the main touchpoints for the students, said, "What we are doing with the students is not just a test case. It's the first seed we plant, and we want to grow the projects much bigger, delivering real value to our business units across the globe." 

This appreciation for utility was shared by the student project lead for the virtual assistant, Tony Weigand (CompSci'24), who said having a tangible product at the end of months of work was incredibly fulfilling. 

Colin Gerson, the vice president for IT in the Americas for Festo, and another key contact for the students, explained that both projects align closely with Festo’s operational needs. "The capstone projects that we bring are meaningful for Festo, and we will use them. We won't just let them sit on a shelf as interesting learning experiences," he said.  

Meeting expectations

To develop useful products, both student teams had to learn soft skills in team management and prioritization, as well as realistic expectation-setting and project-scoping when collaborating with the company. 

Kevin Ash (CompSci'24), the student lead for the product recognition tool, said, "I've learned a lot about managing expectations and coming up with ideas that are feasible and can be completed using the resources we have." 

Weigand, reflecting on his group's skills, said the project expanded the students’ ability to achieve goals. 

"Being involved in this hands-on project has been super valuable," he said. "Reading about sprints and agile project management is very different from actually practicing them," he continued. 

Gerson said that Festo helps the students understand project management coordination. "At the beginning of the project," he said, "when they're asked to create a project charter and milestones, they look a bit like deer in the headlights, but by the end, you can see that they've learned what to expect, and how to deliver."

Learning from one another

In order to surmount the challenging technical aspects of the project, both teams emphasized sharing knowledge and skill-building. 

Working with his team, Weigand said, was very much a case of the sum being greater than its parts. 

"Having different people with different areas of expertise provided a wealth of knowledge and capability, and our sponsor, Didi, was patient, helpful and accommodating," he said.  

Ash also saw this in his team's work.

"There have been so many good ideas that we’ve been able to discuss," he said. "I feel like I’ve been getting a lot smarter just by being around the people in my group and hearing them discuss potential solutions to the problems we run into."

Frank said it's fun working together with the students. 

"As we're coming to the end of the project, you see how the pieces are coming together," he said. "They distribute the work between one another and take the advice we give them. They're very enthusiastic about having a good and successful project at the end."