Hopkins named a 2021 Outstanding Young Alumnus


Maddie Yang

Alumnus Sean Hopkins has been named one of this year’s MechSE Outstanding Young Alumni. The award is presented annually to alumni who have graduated within the last decade and embody the department’s values in their professional life.

While an undergraduate at Illinois, Hopkins participated in Illini Cycling and conducted undergraduate research with Associate Professor Emeritus Mike Philpott, who also taught Hopkins in ME 270 (Design for Manufacturability), which he said was a highlight of his undergraduate years and inspired him to work with Phillpott on his feature-based cost approximation software, aPriori.

“I credit him with my passion for mechanical engineering,” Hopkins said. Without Professor Philpott, I wouldn't have graduated, at least in the position that I wanted to – and I wouldn't have had this passion for automotive or for everything design-related.”

After graduating in 2011 with his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Hopkins went to work for Navistar as a design engineer for military vehicles. “I worked on body systems integration for armored systems, which are meant to increase the chance of survivability.” Hopkins became interested in the subject while talking to his Fundamentals of Fluid Dynamics (ME 310) professor, former MechSE professor Dimitrios Kyritsis, who at the time was working on modeling explosives. “I remember him showing me this textbook—which I think he co-authored—and he was like the godfather of explosion modeling, or information modeling, and I still have it to this day. It’s a hardbound, leather book with gold letters and it was signed by him; it was his own personal copy.”

After working for Navistar, Hopkins moved to Dyson, where he worked as a quality engineer, before eventually landing his job at SRAM. The company, founded in Chicago in 1987, is a manufacturer of innovative bicycle components, including its first product, Grip Shift.

“SRAM was my dream job. I think I was a junior in college when I first visited because a classmate’s father worked there and he let me shadow him. It was probably the most eye-opening experience I've had because it allowed me to understand exactly what I wanted to do. After seven years and two jobs, I finally got the job here! Coincidentally, that classmate is also one of my coworkers. She sits across from me,” he said.

At SRAM, Hopkins works as a quality engineer, ensuring that their products are operating the way they should, both pre- and post-production. One particular project he worked on was to ensure that the wireless electronic shifting mechanism had a stable manufacturing process—one that would limit errors caused in production. After the parts were released, he implemented a process to track all the sold parts and look at failure trends to modify future designs.

Hopkins said that even to this day he uses much of his mechanical engineering class work in his job. “It's funny because a few months ago, I emailed Professor Prashant Mehta, who I had for my Dynamics of Mechanical Systems course (ME 340), because I was modeling a dynamic system by hand, instead of using computers. I wasn’t sure what I would remember, but it turns out, I remember a lot of it.” Hopkins said he uses much of what he learned on failures and fractures in his current line of work.

Hopkins advises current students to “constantly be curious” and recommended carrying around a notebook to jot down questions that arise, then try to answer them on their own later.