Skip to content
Students taking a picture in front of a fire truck

Bar None: ME Senior Design Challenge

The firefighters from the Knoxville Fire Department gladly accepted the challenge of attempting to break the Halligan bar created by TCE’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering senior design team. They each took turns prying the bar into a 780-pound door at all different angles.

Blow after blow, twist by twist, the bar held strong.

Kolby Bull, Zoe Campbell, Brian Hicks, and Jake Lockhart stood back and watched all the forcible entry tests performed at the Knoxville Fire Department Training Academy. They were impressed at the durability of the bar. Aside from a broken pick at the top, the bar withstood all the intentional abuse.

The ensuing months, however, didn’t deliver as much success. Molds failed and timelines needed to be revised. It was all part of the learning process as the team prepared to submit an entry into a national competition.

“We definitely experienced some ups and downs throughout, and we faced challenges that we had to work through and figure out,” Bull said. “It can be easy to miscommunicate with somebody, and that is where the teamwork aspect really comes into play. Everyone needs to always be on the same page to have it be successful.”

Senior design is a two-semester course that allows students to apply all their acquired knowledge and skills in engineering and science to solve a problem with an agency, corporation, or the community.

Bull, Campbell, Hicks, and Lockhart designed a Halligan bar for entry into the Cast in Steel competition hosted by the Steel Founders’ Society of America. The competition challenges college students to use modern casting tools to creatively design and produce a functioning version of Halligan bar, which is a multipurpose tool used by firefighters to gain access to building spaces, vehicles, and other emergency uses.

Knoxville Fire Department gladly accepted the challenge of attempting to break the Halligan bar created by TCE’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering senior design team.

Designed by and named for New York City Fire Department First Deputy Chie Hugh Halligan in 1948, the Halligan bar consists of a bar with a claw or fork, a blade, and a tapered pick.

The bars created by the university teams couldn’t weigh more than 6 kilograms (13.2 lbs.) or be longer than 1 meter (40 inches) in overall length.

Teams didn’t have to stick closely to the traditional design of the Halligan bar. They were allowed to modify or optimize the design to improve its utility while performing functions that the Halligan bar is used for by firefighters.

Each bar submitted by teams is put through a series of tests appropriate to the application, like prying, punching, twisting, and striking. Along with submitting the Halligan bar, teams were required to submit a project video and a technical report documenting the design and manufacturing process by the March 29th deadline. The awards ceremony takes place April 23rd in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

UT’s team submitted a circular shaft Halligan bar, and retained the hexagonal bar used by the Knoxville firefighters during testing as backup entry option.

The team was hoping to create more successful molds after the initial attempt but ran into various problems. It required them to pivot quickly, devise alternative solutions, and reset expectations. The team saw areas where they could have planned better or sought feedback to make changes earlier.

“I definitely learned a lot about administrative logistics behind the non-technical aspects of working on a project,” Hicks said. “Getting that experience is going to be good. If we had to do it again, I think we would make some big changes of how we did things. But that is sort of an indicator that we learned something.”

Being able to forecast some potential problems that may arise was a crucial piece of keeping the project on track and viable.

“Time management skills and planning ahead were some of the bigger things that helped us,” Lockhart said. “Since we had a bunch of contingency plans in place, we were ready if something went wrong, or molds failed. It helped that we had backups in place.”

Campbell was happy the project took her away from sitting in classroom and gave her an opportunity to learn about different roles in the engineering process.

“I definitely enjoyed the hands-on aspect,” she said. “A lot of my education so far has been on paper, so it was nice to actually try out casting and pouring the hot metal into a mold at the foundry.”

Campbell also found a female role model in Britni Snow, a metallurgist at Magotteaux.

“It was great to see her really holding her own with the guys,” Campbell said. “The way she interacted with her colleagues and how they treated her and seeing her take charge and help advocate for us was super nice.”

The Knoxville firefighters enjoyed being involved in UT’s senior design project. They offered feedback throughout the testing to help the students gauge what worked well and what could be improved. The fire academy plans to make one of the Halligan bars UT’s team created into a plaque to hang in the fire hall.

“It’s great that we can be an asset in some way for these college kids to help them with this project,” KFD Captain Don Tipton said. “I think what they are doing is phenomenal. That’s how a lot of things have been developed, because somebody sees a need and then somebody else will say, ‘hey, we could do it this way and it would be better.’”

Bull’s father is a firefighter, and being able to create something he uses every day in his job made the project resonate even deeper. Bull took away valuable lessons from the Senior Design project that he knows will benefit him in his future career.

“I think the coolest part was getting to do every part of it,” Bull said. “From what I have understood, most of the time in the industry you are stuck in one spot. But we got to experience the design phase, the testing phase, and all the other phases. It was cool to do all of that and be very hands-on throughout the process.”


Rhiannon Potkey (865-974-0683,