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Industrial Sponsors Promote MIE Capstone Course

During the fall 2012 semester, six companies banded together to support the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Senior Capstone Design Course, the penultimate classroom experience for MIE students taught by Professor Frank Sup. The sponsorships are based on a winning formula for all six companies, the students, and the whole MIE department. Sponsorships provide the businesses with key designs to boost their production processes, they give the capstone students real-world projects comparable to professional engineering jobs, and they help support the newly renovated MIE Innovation Shop. Each sponsor donates $3,000, which promotes all these worthy causes.

And that’s not all. “Each of these companies comes for different reasons,” explains Sup. “But one benefit of such sponsorships for the companies is allowing them to interact with students and meet promising new engineers. Beyond that, the students are providing them with new insights to help solve interesting problems faced by each company. It’s a fresh perspective.”

The projects range from creating a security device for solar arrays to creating a new energy-saving door for large, inflatable, U.S. Army tents. Meanwhile, the students take on the actual engineering problems as faced by a real company and work on them for the whole semester. And each project has a technical contact at the sponsoring company. It’s a two-way information highway between each team and its sponsor. It’s also as close as the department can get to replicating a real mechanical engineering job in a real industry.

This arrangement works to the benefit of everyone concerned, judging from the remarks from one sponsor, Hyperion Systems LLC, an Amherst company which designs, manufactures, and markets an innovative photovoltaic system designed to keep farmland in production while generating solar energy. Currently, the company has no security system in place,and the development of one at a low cost would provide a major competitive advantage for the company.

“Our final design consists of a racking bar which is square with two supporting bars built into its structure,” as the capstone team of Jonathan Villanueva, Gregory Margolis, Kelton Gallant, and John Flahive explains. “This bar maintains the same function as the previous bar of holding the solar panels in place. After the solar panel is secured, an I-Beam is inserted through the racking bar which blocks access to the bolts holding the solar panels together. Lastly, a trailer hitch lock is inserted through both the racking bar and inner beam to secure the entire system. In doing this, the solar panels are all held together creating one extremely large and heavy device when locked and therefore making it very difficult to steal without the use of large power tools.”

The Hyperion executives were delighted: “The students did a good job in understanding what we had developed in the past and came up with an interesting potential direction to provide security for our solar arrays. This is a very significant challenge, and we applaud the team for being able to shift gears early on in the project to focus on our true number-one challenge, which is panel security on the farms where theft is rampant. This showed great maturity and that they were really listening to our pressing number one need.”

The company added that “the other security systems in the solar industry took large teams many years to perfect; This is no small task.”

Another sponsor is New England Wire of Lisbon, New Hampshire, the leading electric wire manufacturer of custom cables, litz wire, flat braided cable, high temperature electronic wire, and multi-conductor cable in the industry. A team of Sup’s students worked to improve energy efficiency in a paint-drying process for the company, which is currently losing money due to low efficiency in one of its powder coating ovens.

Consequently, the team composed of Timothy Tashjian, Ryan Hammond, Ben Collins, and Konstantin Makarov did a thorough analysis of the oven and recommended that the company install an air curtain on the exterior of the parts outlet door. This air curtain would cost $1,960 to purchase but is projected to save the company $515/month in lost heat with an operating cost of $96/month

PRIMA-Electro in Chicopee, which designs, manufactures, and markets industrial-grade electronics, CNC, and motion-control products, wanted an MIE team to build upon a successful Senior Design project the company sponsored in the fall of 2011, continuing the development of a system for measuring the power of a laser beam capable of cutting through several inches of steal, such as might be used in a shipyards and the automotive industry.

The team of Niles Batchelder, Kelley Kolb, Jacob Miller-Mack, and David Ngurrent studied the 2011 design and, among other recommendations, suggested using: commercial heat flux sensors, which will increase consistency, repeatability, and reliability; improved noise-tolerance on the circuit board, a new design copper absorber to speed up response time; the reduction in overall mass; and further development of signal processing to avoid false readings.

The Army-Research, Development, and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass., which develops support items for the U.S. military, wanted Sup’s engineering students to design an energy-saving door for large, inflatable, Quonset-hut-shaped tents used as barracks, dining halls, and hospitals in the field. Since the tents are equipped with lighting, heating, and air-conditioning that all require fuel to be transported into the field, these doors will save money, fuel, and very possibly lives.

The team of Andrew Bosowicz, Colin Donoghue, Anders Olsen, and Travis Wilson worked on this problem and solved the air infiltration issue by recommending compression seals with overlapping plates, recessed hinges to minimize gaps, door sweep at the bottom, fabric wraps to seal edge gaps, and a self-closing door apparatus. They also suggested eliminating “play” in the door with diagonal turnbuckles to pick up slack or sag in the doorframe.

Savage Arms of West Springfield asked the team of Max Goulston, Matt Hunter, Gary Laorenza, Jon Radzicki, and Drew Schwendenmann to decrease the manual labor required for quality control testing of a new product line. The students developed a simple, elegant prototype to assist workers in the labor-intensive task that in its current form is expensive due to both labor costs and lost efficiency of involved employees’ primary functions.

Finally, SolaBlock of Springfield manufactures solar-clad cinderblocks that represent an entirely new approach to construction by bringing the entire building envelope into renewable energy production. One problem that SolaBlock wanted Sup’s students to solve is the thermal issue of using different materials in each cinderblock. “The solar panels are attached to concrete with an adhesive and then covered with a protective layer of material,” says Sup. “As these various materials heat up and cool down, they expand and contract at different rates. This can actually shorten the life of solar panels by causing them to crack.”

The team of Joseph Algeri, John Collins, Dennis Lam, and Ethan Taylor did a materials study to determine how they can add durability and longevity to these building materials so the cinderblocks won’t fail prematurely due to the stress placed on them from temperature changes.

“Sponsoring a project is an exciting opportunity for companies to participate in the classroom,” notes Sup, “and work with students to develop new ideas and processes for their products. This kind of cross-pollination is win-win for everyone.” (January 2013)