The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Corporate Sponsors Make a Match Made in Heaven

Ryan Wade (Hampshire Gazette Photo)

Most of us have heard Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous quip: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” His quote aptly sums up one important impact of the Senior Capstone Design course required for every senior in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. During each semester-long Senior Capstone Design course, companies and other organizations beat a path to the doors of the college, where they sponsor teams of talented MIE students to answer the worldwide call for a better mousetrap and brilliant new mechanical devices of every kind.

This productive collaboration between MIE students and their sponsors has created everything from a robotic arm for a disabled child to a collapsible mobile tower for the U.S. Army.

Our mechanical engineering prodigies have been sponsored by such well-known organizations as Yankee Candle, Ken’s Foods, W8, BETE Fog Nozzle, Wyss Institute of Harvard University, Berry Plastics, ERS energy consultants, ISO New England, the U.S. Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command, and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“This venue is ideal, providing practical and exciting real-world projects,” said Steve Nyquist, the director of Engineering and Technological Business Development at Altra Industrial Motion, one of many companies that have sponsored senior capstone projects. “We are very pleased with the students’ team spirit, professional approach, and inventive nature…and look forward to submitting their design to our customer.”

One perfect example of the “better mousetrap” concept was the collaboration between an MIE team and Yankee Candle to resolve some critical flaws in the company’s wax-melting floor tanks. Another fruitful partnership produced a collapsible, portable, multi-purpose tower, made for the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Massachusetts. But the organization that perhaps received the biggest bang for its buck was the NSF, whose $125,000 grant supported several clever assistive technology devices for disabled citizens, including the project that produced a mechanical forearm for a five-year-old boy with a rare disease that prevented him from bending his elbows.

The Senior Capstone Design course gives MIE students a clear, hands-on understanding of real-world engineering problems and solutions. Each project hands students the opportunity to work on actual industrial projects that involve design constraints, budgets, reviews, and deadlines. An industry-university partnership serves to integrate design, manufactur­ing, service engineering, and business realities into the engineering curriculum.

A tax-deductible sponsorship of $3,000 not only helps create the next generation of world-class engineers, but a sponsoring company can even specify the creation of a special product to answer one of its critical needs.

For instance, Yankee Candle needed our students to address a recurring problem in its electrically heated wax-melting floor tanks, used in candle manufacturing, which were suffering from incomplete wax drainage and weld failure. The UMass team, composed of Alan Baryudin, Jeremy Thayer, Eric Trulson, and Aaron Misiph, provided Yankee Candle with standardized designs for 300-pound, 600-pound, and 1200-pound floor tanks that drain wax completely and are structurally sound.

A message from a Yankee Candle representative praised the work done on its Wax Floor Tank Design and expressed the kind of benefits that sponsors of MIE projects can receive. “As I said last week at the poster presentation, nice work and congratulations…We are committed to constructing a prototype of your design here in-house…Thank you for all your hard work and, again, great job.”

Another successful collaboration was the 2013 team of Joseph Boisvert, Michael Covino, Christopher Dinan, Brandon Hicks, and Kyle Pereira, which conceived, designed, and built the scale model of a mobile tower for U.S. Army base camps in the field.

The Army needed a team of students to investigate, design, analyze, and prototype a quickly deployable, moveable tower for a 150-person, expeditionary, base camp. The task of the students was to conceive a portable tower that can be quickly assembled or broken down by four soldiers, is lightweight, can be stored in a small pack, is at least 20-feet tall when assembled, can support a 30-pound load at the top, and can withstand steady winds of 50 mph and gusts of 65 mph.

Working on the tower throughout the 2012-2013 school year, the winning team came up with a feasible design with several key concepts, including: a collapsible, telescoping truss; a simple, hand-powered, mechanical lifting system; tool-less assembly and disassembly; a minimal footprint; and a light-weight, strong design at an inexpensive cost.

The $125,000 NSF grant is also paying big dividends. One NSF-sponsored team, made up of MIE seniors Brian Cormier, Andrew Friedlieb, Catherine Paquin, and Kyle Morrell, and School of Nursing student Emily Gardner, created a working mechanical arm for Ryan Wade, an independent and charismatic boy with Pediatric Multiple Synostosis Syndrome. Ryan is unable to perform many activities of daily life without assistance. The team developed an extremely light, durable, flexible, and adaptable actuating arm which allows Ryan independently to adjust his glasses, wipe his mouth with a napkin, feed himself crackers, and potentially carry out other tasks that were previously not possible for the boy.

Two other NSF-sponsored teams were also working on collaborative mechanical engineering and nursing projects. MIE students collaborated with nursing students to design, develop, and custom-build assistive devices for two elderly clients in the Pioneer Valley. One project focused on a novel lift system to assist an elderly client, who resides in an independent-living residence, rise from the ground to a stranding position. The second team designed specialized equipment to assist an aging client with his exercise routine. Both teams are using their mechanical engineering expertise to create reliable, effective, innovative systems in collaboration with nursing students to identify the human, safety, and medical concerns associated with their products.

In effect, sponsorship of MIE capstone projects is a match made in heaven. Selected by companies based on their own objectives, projects will ideally allow for a broad range of explo­ration on topics such as renewable energy, energy efficiency and storage, bioengineering, controls, me­chanical design, manufacturing, materials, ergonomics and human factors, health systems and facilities, systems, and networks.

And, let’s face it, all these products are much more creative and far-reaching than Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mousetrap. To submit a proposal or for additional information on sponsorship, please contact Bernd F. Schliemann, or (413) 545-6251. (September 2014)