2019 design challenge: petal drop!


Over 25 undergraduate and graduate students on six teams from five universities in the Midwest region demonstrated a wide variety of prototype designs to accomplish the “petal drop” effect on May 4, 2019. The judges selected the design of the team of graduate students from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as the best overall design for this year’s competition: Patrick Szczotka, Mark Quiles, Patrick Storey, and Bobby Reynolds (coached by Ryan Schultz). These four students will be the recipients of four full-conference passes to the 2020 Annual Conference and Stage Expo in addition to the acrylic trophies that they received on Saturday.

Additional certificate of achievement were awarded as follows:

  • Best Proposal
    Zack Kovalenko, Leigh Witek, Janna Jackson, Issy Block; coach: Rich Dionne, Purdue University
  • Most Efficient Load-in
    Ben Marsh, Kyle Langreck, Patrick Librandi; coach: Andrew Gutshall, Valparaiso University
  • Most Effective Machine
    Patrick Szczotka, Mark Quiles, Patrick Storey, and Bobby Reynolds; coach: Ryan Schultz, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • Most Elegant Implementation
    Ben Marsh, Kyle Langreck, Patrick Librandi; coach: Andrew Gutshall, Valparaiso University
  • Best Teamwork
    Caroline Kester, Kaleb Dunn, Olivia Martinez-Rice, Shepherd Dick; coach: Rich Dionne, Purdue University

About the competition

The Stage Machine Design Competition, first launched in 2005 at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign as the “Midwest Machine Design Competition,” came from a desire to provide an opportunity for theatre students to explore the mechanical design process in a fun, hands-on way. After a brief hiatus, the Stage Machine Design Competition returns in 2019 with a new look and an expanded purpose. The fundamental goal is still the same, of course: provide students of theatre technology an opportunity to explore the mechanical design process. Beyond that, we hope the Stage Machine Design Competition can become a vehicle to ignite a passion for stage machinery and mechanical design, particularly amongst theatre undergraduate students.

To that end, the mission of the Stage Machine Design Competition comprises four major foci:

  • Encouraging good engineering design practice
  • Exploring non-traditional solutions to theatrical challenges
  • Fostering excitement about the integration of engineering and live entertainment
  • Developing collaborative relationships among peers and colleagues across the country

This mission drove the design of the 2019 Challenge, and will continue to be the motivating force behind the design of challenges in the years to come.

registering for the competition

Teams from any college or university in the Midwest Regional Section of USITT are encouraged to register teams of students (graduate, undergraduate, or mixed groups) for the 2019 Stage Machine Design Competition. (The Midwest Regional Section of USITT comprises the states Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.)

Unlike previous iterations of the competition, only teams may register for the 2019 Stage Machine Design Competition; individuals cannot compete. Teams must be comprised of no fewer than two (2) and no more than four (4) students.

Each team must have a faculty or staff coach from a college or university theatre department, who can attest to each team member’s commitment to theatre technology and/or theatre engineering. Coaches must be present at the competition, and can work with more than one team. (However, we recommend not coaching more than two total teams.)

To register, complete the form below. Once your registration form has been reviewed, coaches will receive an email with information about paying the registration fee. Registration cost is $25 per individual participant (not per team), and is non-refundable. (Note that participants--including faculty sponsors--are responsible for all travel-related expenses, though lunch will be provided on the day of the competition event.)

Challenge registration submitted

The Stage Machine Design Competition organizers thank you for registering! You should receive an email soon with more information, including a challenge packet and instructions for mailing your registration fees.

Competition sponsors

The Stage Machine Design Competition would not be possible without the generous support from our partners.

2019 Engineer-Level Supporters

Creative Conners, Electronic Theatre Controls, Reed Rigging, Inc., United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT), USITT Midwest Regional Section

2019 Technician-Level Supporters

Texas Scenic Company

Special thanks to Purdue University Department of Theatre, Purdue University School of Engineering Education, and Michigan Technological University Department of Theatre.

General Competition rules

Teams of two to four, made up of any combination of college or university students at any level (graudate or undergraduate) may enter the competition. No solo entries will be accepted. No entries of teams with more than four participants will be accepted.

Every team must have a faculty or staff coach. (For more information, see the Registration page.)

All participants will be given the opportunity to design a solution to this year’s Stage Machine Design Competition challenge. All teams will be given the same information about the challenge, including any constraints on the effect to be designed. Each team may choose the methods, materials, parts, and other elements of the solution (with some limitations; see below). Each team will be assessed by the judges using the same rubrics for each award category.

To enter the competition, each team must provide the following:

  • A written proposal for their design with corresponding paperwork:
    • Design specification documents (detailing the requirements of the machine, as best as the team understands them, etc.).
    • Concept designs (sketches, drawings, lo-fidelity prototypes exploring multiple design solutions to the challenge, and a justification for why the team chose to follow through on a particular concept).
    • Detail designs (costings, parts lists, technical drawings, appropriate mathematical/engineering analyses, etc.).
    • This portion of the proposal should also include manuals/user instructions and safety protocols for the device.
  • A working prototype to be tested on-site at the event in May:
    • The prototype itself.
    • Any required tools to assemble and operate your device.
    • Any additional equipment beyond the scope provided in the event venue, within the parameters detailed in the Design Challenge Description section below.

Teams must submit one (1) PDF version of their proposal no later than Friday, April 12, 2019, for consideration and review. Teams must bring one (1) bound copy of their proposal, their working propotype, and a complete, accurate costing of their device to the competition on May 4.

The following resources will be available at the competition site on the day of the competition:

  • Up to 15A 110-120VAC power per participating team will be available for testing and competition
  • 100 PSI air pressure available by 1/4” tube or quick-connect by request. Requests for air supply must be made prior to May 1 by emailing the competition hosts (rdionne@purdue.edu).
  • Additional resources may be available depending on the specific design challenge; see the Challenge Description.

Teams will be provided with time prior to testing to calibrate and tune their devices.

Under no circumstances can any team’s prototype include explosives or pyrotechnics. Prototypes including explosives or pyrotechnics will be immediately disqualified from the competition.

The competition hosts reserve the right to remove any device from the competition that is deemed unsafe to operate or in direct violation of competition guidelines. Additionally, all teams are expected to function professionally, ethically, and within the honor code of their university or college. Teams may be disqualified for behavior unbecoming themselves or their schools. All disqualifying or removal rulings are final, and no entry refunds will be issued.

2019 SMDC Challenge

The director and design team for a production of Much Ado About Nothing have decided that during the wedding scene, they’d like to see a beautiful “rainfall” of flower petals over the lovers. It is your responsibility to make this happen. Here are some things you know about the effect:

  • It takes place center stage.
  • The area the petals should cover as they fall should be an approximately 3-foot diameter circle.
  • The petals used for this effect will be silk flower petals, approximately 1½” x 1½” in size.
  • The petals should fall gently, slowly, and continuously for about 30 seconds (note that neither the director nor the designers have been specific about what “gently” or “slowly” means; you’ll need to make some educated decisions).
  • The total distance the petals must fall (between the level the lovers stand on and the lowest masked place the petal drop device can exist) is 15 feet.
  • The petal drop device itself will hang on a 1½” Schedule 40 batten, and must have a footprint not greater than 20” by 20”.
  • The petal drop device, once installed, will be inaccessible to stage hands or crew, unable to be lowered, and must be reloadable from the ground without using a ladder or lift.
  • The petal drop device must be operated from 25 feet offstage of the effect; the operator will be on a level 15 feet below the level of the petal drop device.
  • The petal drop device must be reloadable in less than 10 minutes.
  • The moment in the play when the petal drop is in use has some musical scoring, but it is light and airy—meaning the petal drop device should be relatively silent.
  • The producers are interested in any device you design being reusable for other drop effects, including snow, confetti, and ping pong balls.

This information is also available to download as a PDF file.

Award Categories

Members of the team with the best proposal submissions will receive certificates for each team member.

Best Proposal will be awarded based on the following:

  • Proposal narrative

    Your narrative should include the following:

    • Design specification
    • Documentation of concept designs

    Your narrative should address the following questions:

    • What is the idea behind your design?
    • How does your design work?
    • Why is your design the best design?
    • What makes your design unique?
    • Is your design cost effective?
    • What improvements could be made and how much would they cost?
    • Of those improvements, what would you recommend?
    • Any other information that you think is relevant
  • Detail design materials
    • Accurate costing and parts list

      These may be combined or separate. Parts list should include part number and supplier, as well as retail costs of donated/borrowed materials)

    • As-built technical drawings

      Drawings should accurately, clearly and completely describe the machine being tested at the event. Drawings should be neat and follow USITT Graphic Standards.

    • Mathematical/engineering analyses demonstrating feasibility of design
    • Manuals/user instructions and safety protocols for the device

Written proposals will be judged on completeness, readability, and professionalism.

Team members from the team with the design which loads the quickest will be awarded the certificates for the Most Efficient Award.

Team members from the team with the design which the judges assess as being the most well-implemented will be awarded certificates for the Most Elegant Design Award. (Parameters include using the least number of moving parts; craftsmanship of construction; finish quality of overall device, etc.)

Team members from the team with the design which most accurately fulfills the expected requirements of the design challenge (i.e., area of dispersion, duration of effect, rate of effect, etc.) will be awarded certificates for the Most Effective Award.

Team members from the team that demonstrates the highest level of collaboration, cooperation, and team work during the calibrating, installation, and testing of their device, and that the judges determine through conversations with participants worked the most collaboratively during the design and construction of their device, will be awarded certificates for the Best Teamwork Award.

Judges will determine the best overall design based on the aggregate of each team’s performance in each of the above categories.

Team members of the overall winner in this category will receive acrylic trophies for each team member and for their sponsoring school. Each team member will also receive a full-conference pass to the 2020 USITT Annual Conference and Stage Expo.

Special awards (including honorable mention certificates in any category) may be created by the judges at the competition.


The Stage Machine Design Competition is always looking for great ideas and new problems to pose for future competitions. Maybe there’s a problem you’ve tackled recently that you think could be solved more elegantly--or you want to see how your design stacks up against the work of some of the bright young minds coming out of universities and colleges! Maybe you came across a challenge you simply couldn’t figure out, and want to see if others can. Or, maybe you just have a cool idea you’ve dreamt up.

Whatever the inspiration, if you’ve got an idea for a future Stage Machine Design Competition Design Challenge, submit it! If we use it in a future challenge, we’ll make sure to credit you for the idea and send you a t-shirt for the competition in which it’s used!

Challenge suggestion submitted

The Stage Machine Design Competition organizers thank you for your suggestion, and will be in touch soon.


Want to know more about the Stage Machine Design Competition? Have a question that hasn’t been answered anywhere else on this site? Contact us using the form below. We’ll respond as soon as we’re able.

Challenge question or comment submitted

The Stage Machine Design Competition organizers thank you for reaching out and will be in touch soon.