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Capstone Projects Act as Proof of Concept for MIE Education

On December 9, seven teams of mechanical engineering students gathered in the second-floor hallway of the ELab Building to present their useful, practical, and inventive projects for the “Senior Capstone Design Project.” The Senior Capstone Design Course, taught by Professor Frank Sup of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, acts as a proof of concept for the MIE curriculum. The course demands that students use the knowledge and skills they have developed during their undergraduate education to design a utilitarian product, build a prototype, summarize the project with a poster, and finally make a verbal presentation to judges.

“This course is an important milestone for the students, marking the end of their academic undergraduate educations with a demonstration of their engineering abilities,” says Professor Sup.

After the judges, including Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Professors Sundar Krishnamurty and Ian Grosse, listened to each team of four to five students explain its poster, they grilled the students on the engineering specs and design process they had used. The judges’ scores were used to rate the top three projects. They ruled that a position-sensing power laser meter was the top project (top photo). An easy-dumping wheelbarrow to assist senior citizens in the garden finished second, while the third-place design (bottom photo) was a vegetable blancher and shocker to boost the volume of produce processed while freezing locally grown vegetables for wholesale.

As the instructor of the course, Professor Sup was charged with guiding all seven teams through the design process from conception to prototype. The students engaged in an iterative design process in which initial ideas and reports are evaluated, reworked, and refined to produce a final form that achieves the desired functions.

This semester two of the top three projects for the course were industry sponsored, thus giving the students the opportunity to work on truly real-world problems. One sponsor, Prima Electro Electronic and Laser Technologies, needed a position-sensing laser meter that could manage beam powers of up to 10 kW. Prima Electro’s present meters can handle only 3 kW. The student team of Aaron Breen, James Filios, Ryan Lemmo, Kevin McGaffigan, and Nicholas Bernasconi came up with a final design that uses eight unique parts, each requiring custom machining and finishing. The final prototype was successfully evaluated at Prima Electro’s test facility in Chicopee, Massachusetts, using a 5 kW laser and was able to meet the demanding measurement standards of commercial laboratory equipment.

The other sponsor, the Franklin County Community Development Corporation, needed a vegetable blancher and shocker unit that can boost the daily output of fresh vegetables being prepared for freezing by local farmers. The team of Robert Sears, Atom Fox, Daniel O’Quinn, Eric Caparola, and Patrick Hart built a three-quarters-scale steam cabinet capable of both blanching and shocking vegetables, in this case broccoli.The team improved the efficiency of the design by insulating the metal cabinet and increasing the steam velocity. The prototype not only stayed within the required budget, but doubled the volume of vegetables being processed.

The second-place assistive wheelbarrow is a good example of the many capstone projects over the years that develop useful products to improve quality of life for people with disabilities or those with diminished physical abilities due to aging. The team of Amanda Willis, Rebecca Popek, Samuel Phat, and Jeffrey McPherson designed a new kind of wheelbarrow that allows aging gardeners to load, move, and dump the cart with ease.

The remaining four teams demonstrated the level of engineering savvy that ran through all the capstone projects. One project was an assistive walker that allows senior citizens to navigate stairs more easily than with standard walkers. Another product was a portable evaporative cooler, a sort of mini “swamp cooler,” capable of air conditioning a tent in dry locations. One team designed a fluid conveying pipe which can limit the chaotic motion in wind turbines that causes material fatigue. Finally, the remaining team created a mountain bike suspension system that adjusts to both on- and off-road conditions.

“This semester the teams exhibited both a strong engineering intellect and a passion for mechanical engineering through the extra effort and long hours required to design, fabricate, and test their designs within the semester,” says Professor Sup. “Each team demonstrated some remarkable successes through the semester. This is the type of course that makes engineering fun.” (December 2011)