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MIE Students Show off Fascinating Inventions on May 1

On May 1, 15 student teams of seniors from the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst demonstrated the prototypes of their useful, inventive, and brilliant designs for all to see. Some of the projects included a wind turbine blade composed of environmentally friendly composite fibers; an assembly line station for a new mechanical power-transmission product; and a collapsible, multi-purpose tower for U.S. Army basecamps. The fascinating event took place in the ELab II Atrium on campus, as staged by the wunderkinds who will help design your future.

Other fascinating-sounding projects by the MIE seniors included All-Terrain Crutches, an Assistive Door Opener, an Assistive Walker for Children, an Automatic Rocking Crib, an Ergonomic Shopping Cart, and Rugged Transport for the Disabled. 

The event is the peak experience of a senior capstone course called “MIE 415 Senior Design Project,” taught by MIE Professor Sundar Krishnamurty. The course is considered “the culminating experience” of the education in the MIE department and 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.

Are these projects relevant? Well, in fact, several projects were actually sponsored by private companies and the U.S. Army to confront thorny mechanical issues that their own research and development units haven’t been able to resolve.

For example, the Black Island Wind Turbine Company of Amherst sponsored a project to correct what it calls the “dirty little secret” of the wind turbine manufacturing business: toxicity and lack of recyclability in blade-making. As the company has explained, “More sustainable technologies are needed—and small wind-turbine blade-making is the perfect test bed to investigate those technologies—at reasonable cost and logistics.”

Two teams of students were tackling this issue. The purpose of their projects was to specify, model, and prototype small (up to eight-feet-long) wind-turbine blades composed of bio-based composite fibers. Their projects demonstrated how “green-blade” technologies compare to existing technologies and the competitive advantages that may benefit wind power. Specifically, the projects validated bio-based replacement-blade materials that meet or exceed the cost, mechanical, and performance metrics of traditionally constructed blades, while making the fabrication of the blades significantly more sustainable.

Another sponsor, Altra Electric Clutch Brake Group of New Hartford, Conn., is a leading multinational designer, producer, and marketer of mechanical power-transmission products. The Altra product portfolio includes industrial clutches and brakes, enclosed gear drives, open gearing, couplings, machined-race bearings, variable frequency and belted drives, linear actuators, and other related products.

Altra is currently launching a new program for a customer. The building of this product involves mostly assembly work (as opposed to machining), and an assembly line is very near completion at the facility. Within this line, however, the company has identified a key station which, as currently designed, cannot reliably meet customer demand rate.

The task of the Altra team of students was to review the current assembly line station and then develop a state-of-the-art station for the new product, including building any tooling or fixturing necessary to enable the station to meet customer demand rate. Utilizing proper Lean Manufacturing techniques is crucial to the assembly line success, and proper ergonomic considerations must also be taken into account.

In another project, the U.S. Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland needed a team of students to investigate, design, analyze, and prototype a quickly deployable, multi-purpose tower for U.S. Army, 150-person, expeditionary basecamps. The task of the students was to conceive a portable tower that can be quickly assembled or broken down, 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.

In one more sponsored project, Kollmorgen Electro-Optical of Northampton, which manufactures integrated imaging systems ranging from periscopes to the latest optronics sensors, needed a team of students to design, analyze, and build a new high-pressure tank controller for L-3 KEO testing of periscopes and optronic units. (April 2013)