The Economics of Engineering - Charlie Springer advocates economically astute innovation

What’s the value of a ground-breaking design and a problem-solving innovation if it’s not cost effective? For Charlie Springer (BSME ’59), it’s only a partial solution — and the reason that he’s giving back. His mission is to help engineering students learn how to meld their discipline with sound economics.

Calling Springer a self-made man is an understatement. After he graduated from high school at age 16, he entered Purdue’s Indianapolis extension in 1948. He left soon thereafter to, as he puts it, “enter the world of physical labor.” He subsequently enlisted in the Air Force, where he spent several years living in a trailer — and he noticed something. His landlord was making a small fortune. That observation would burn in Springer’s mind for years to come.

Realizing he needed more education to shape the life he wanted for his wife and children, he returned to Purdue to complete his degree in mechanical engineering. Springer worked in industry for a time after graduation — and rather successfully. But he still had that dream of making it big in the trailer-park business.

So began Springer’s journey into what he calls “the fires of entrepreneurship.” After scouting several Florida locations, he made his first land purchase in 1961 on a lot with fewer than 30 trailers.

The lessons learned during those few lean years laid the groundwork for his mindset today. Engineers are idea people. They provide solutions. But if the solution comes at a prohibitive cost — and, he says, if today’s students fail to learn how to manage not only a project’s finances — but their own — their impact is greatly diminished.

After having built more than 1,200 mobile homes in lots across the Tampa area — including 725 currently in use — Springer looked for ways to give back. “I’ve got a tradition with the Purdue family,” he says. “My father graduated in 1927, my older brother in 1950 and a younger brother in 1970. Without Purdue and the confidence I attained by having my Purdue education, I do not think the success I have achieved would have been possible.” 

His success spurred him to make a $750,000 gift to the School of Mechanical Engineering. Of that sum, $250,000 has been used to establish the Charles E. and Louise W. Springer Lecture Series in Economics and Innovation. The remaining $500,000 was used to create the Charles and Louise Springer Classroom in Economics and Innovation. Together, the two gifts provide ongoing opportunities for engineering students to supplement their core curriculum by making fiscally and economically responsible decisions.

Tom Malott (BSME ’62, HDR ’02), former president and CEO of Siemens Energy and Automation, gave the inaugural lecture on March 26, 2012. Titled “The Impact of Innovation on Economic Growth and Living Standard,” Malott began: “A common-sense understanding of economics is very important for engineers. Most every day you will face in your careers a situation that requires sound economic reasoning.”

Dovetailing with the lecture series is a new classroom built in the Caterpillar Product Engineering and Realization Laboratory (PEARL). Dedicated in fall 2011, the classroom is next to PEARL’s product realization and engineering lab. Students working on senior capstone design projects — focusing on initial modeling and initial conceptualization of prototypes — get theory in the classroom, and then apply it next door. Ultimately, the classroom reinforces Springer’s mission to educate engineers to be innovative on a budget. State-of-the-art, the classroom gives students ready access to Skype and video conferencing with industry professionals. Here, they learn about simulated design and are asked to consider the marketability of their designs.

Even at age 80, if Springer needs a ditch dug, he does it himself, whether with a backhoe or a square-edge shovel. It’s that enterprising spirit that led him to accomplish his lifelong dream. He says he wasn’t always the most naturally talented student, but his own ambition and hard work have paid dividends — both personally, and now to a grateful alma mater.

“Purdue taught me how to think, how to solve problems and how to be successful in business by using analytical processes. They’ve helped me build a good life. Now it’s time for me to give back.”