April 1, 2017

FIRST Robotics, Cardinal Formula Racing provide foundation for business started by SVSU mechanical engineering alum

As the founder and president of a design and engineering company, Nevin Steinbrink appreciates the opportunity to build things. 

He also appreciates the things that built him.

Two important building blocks for the Bloomfield Hills native were FIRST Robotics, a competition for high school students to create robots, and Saginaw Valley State University’s Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Cardinal Formula Racing team, which builds Indy-style vehicles to race against international competition.

His involvement with both organizations — and the lessons learned along the way — helped him succeed when he created his Old Town Saginaw-based company, Steinbrink Engineering LLC, in 2008.

“The transition — going from FIRST Robotics, to SAE, to starting a company — was so critical to my success,” said Steinbrink, who graduated from SVSU with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2015.

“Being part of FIRST Robotics and SAE helped me learn to become independent and yet still dependent on my teammates. That really helped me to balance myself out so I could feel confident and comfortable starting my own company.”

Soon, reminders of Steinbrink’s past will be on display nearby.

SVSU will host this year’s statewide FIRST Robotics contest April 12-15, when about 5,000 high school student competitors from across Michigan will visit the campus.

A few weeks after that, this year’s SVSU Cardinal Formula Racing team will finish assembling its latest vehicle for the Formula SAE Collegiate Competition Series in May.

Steinbrink plans to visit the FIRST Robotics competition. As an SVSU adjunct instructor who teaches mechanical engineering courses, he is never far from the on-campus body shop where the racing team builds its vehicles.

“Those were great times,” he said of both experiences.

His involvement with FIRST Robotics began in 2001 when he was a student at Andover High School. Organizers created a FIRST Robotics team for interested students from his school and another nearby institution. One of that team's advisors, Gail Alpert, now serves as president of FIRST in Michigan.

 “I learned so much,” Stenibrink said of his work with the group, known as Team 469.

Steinbrink and his teammates rotated responsibilities involving everything from design conception to building the final product. That wide-ranging exposure to creating technology gave him a big-picture sense of both how to assemble a machine and work with others in achieving goals.

“I was learning all this knowledge at 15; not only the design, but also how parts are made,” he said. “That was huge. These aren’t things you can learn in a class. You have to get your hands dirty.”

In 2003, Steinbrink and his team bested the competition — about 1,500 teams in total — at the FIRST Robotics’ national championship competition in Orlando, Florida.

The lessons learned from that experience provided a foundation for accomplishing similar tasks when he worked as a member of the SVSU Cardinal Formula Racing team from 2008-11.

“SAE was basically the same thing as FIRST Robotics, except your parents aren’t as involved,” Steinbrink said. “It’s a higher level, but you’re doing a lot of the same things.”

And the lessons learned from both experiences provided a foundation of knowledge that gave Steinbrink the confidence and wherewithal to create Steinbrink Engineering LLC, which provides services to clients in need of help with design and engineering work.

The organization has worked with clients on technology that supports physical therapy-aiding devices, Bluetooth-connected electric toothbrushes, football helmet facemasks, and HVAC air flow systems.

While he largely manages the company’s workload now, Steinbrink occasionally has the opportunity to take the sort of hands-on approach that allowed him to excel in FIRST Robotics and Cardinal Formula Racing once upon a time.

“I still love getting my hands dirty,” he said. “That hasn’t changed.”