By Wileen Wong Kromhout

A new mechanical engineering (ME) capstone design sequence for all graduating ME seniors was unveiled this winter quarter by the mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE) department  after two years of extensive preparations and refinement. The two-term sequence was created with the goal of providing the students with a better design experience.

Students 1 2011In the first quarter, students are provided with the tools they need to perform the design project (software and hardware) and in the second quarter, they focus on finalizing their design, then building and testing it.

The chair of the MAE department, Adrienne Lavine, challenged a group of faculty to revise the capstone sequence while at the same time reducing costs.

“Honestly, I didn’t expect them to achieve both goals, but they did,” said Lavine. “An additional benefit with the new sequence was that there could also be a competition at the end of the quarter which was a great motivation and celebration of the students’ work.”

Leading the charge for this new sequence (162 D/E) was Professor Daniel Yang, who also teaches the course with two other faculty, Professors T-C. Tsao and Robert Shahram Shaefer.  Instruction for the first term focused on conceptual design with topics ranging from mechanical component design and mechatronics to thermo design and mechanical system design. Lab work included CAD (computer-aided design), CAD analysis, mechatronics and conceptual design for individual projects.

Students 2 2011“Industry today is very interested in students who’ve taken hands-on design courses like this one,” said Yang. “For four years, students at the school learn a great deal about theory. They need to use what they’ve learned and apply it to this design sequence. These two courses are very practical and provide the necessary hands-on learning experience. The sequence also encourages teamwork in design, in presentations as well as in competition. Therefore it builds camaraderie.”

“This sequence,” said Lavine, “offers an essential experience for a budding engineer. For example, the newly designed courses introduce students to mechatronics, the combination of electronics with mechanical devices, which is extremely important in today’s engineering world.”

Students 3 2011Students began designing their projects in 162D in their CAD and Mechatronics lab. Then in 162E, they were provided with opportunities for fabrication and testing, project demonstration and finally competition with their fellow classmates. The class of 100 students worked in groups of five or six throughout the two course series.

Jessica Chu, a student in 162 D/E, found the firsthand experience in project management to be very beneficial.

“We definitely learned the value and importance of time management and teamwork in all conditions, especially under stress,” said Chu. “Working with a group and developing an understanding of how to attack a given task were definitely two skills we honed that will be required for industry success.”

According to another classmate, Ryan Menefee, being able to spend two quarters working towards a physical product made the end result all the more satisfying.

Students 4 2011“It’s easy to say that a preliminary design will work,” said Menefee. “My group thought that our design was fairly solid. But issues arose when fabrication and testing began. We had to develop solutions and work around these problems.”

“What I enjoyed most about this sequence,” stated senior Seok-Joon Hong, “was the interaction between team members. This type of project let me communicate ideas and improve concepts that would have been impossible by myself. The team experience was invaluable to me as someone looking to go into industry.”

The project for this year was to design and build an autonomous vehicle for the transportation of bulk material: a robot rice rover. There were a few requirements too. The rover not only needed to follow a pre-designed pathway but it had to be able to dump a payload of rice into a collection bin at the end of the path.

Students were provided with a detailed description of the pathway (three platforms and two ramps), along with other prerequisites like how the vehicle should be powered, its size, its movement along the pathway, and a budget.

Final scores for teams on competition day was the weight of the transported rice minus all penalties incurred (i.e. accidentally or deliberately touching the pathway or receiving bin during the 10-minute race resulted in a 5% penalty).

“I enjoyed the competition element of the course,” said Alex Teunissen. “I think it gives motivation to the students because they want to produce the best vehicle. It would be really cool if this competition became a tradition in the mechanical engineering major.”

“The competition element should most definitely be a part of the course,” added Hong. “It really brings the students’ spirits into the project and that desire to be the best helped in motivating students to give their best.”