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Portable Army Tower Wins Senior Capstone Competition

A collapsible, portable, multi-purpose tower made for U.S. Army base camps in the field won first prize in the competition for the best senior capstone design project in the Mechanical and Engineering (MIE) Department this year. The competition was held on May 1, when 15 teams of seniors demonstrated the prototypes of their useful, inventive, and brilliant designs. The winning team of Joseph Boisvert, Michael Covino, Christopher Dinan, Brandon Hicks, and Kyle Pereira conceived, designed, and built the scale model of a mobile tower for the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass. The competition is the peak experience of a course called “MIE 415 Senior Design Project,” taught by MIE Professors Sundar Krishnamurty (spring semester) and Frank Sup (fall semester).

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.

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; a tool-less design; a minimal footprint; a stress-free assembly; and a light-weight, strong design at an inexpensive cost.

To prove its concept, the team built a one-twelth scale model, constructed of scrap aluminum. The prototype provided useful insights into the manufacturing, structural integrity, and means of elevation for their tower.

The tower proved the perfect example of a Senior Design Project, which is meant to give students a clear, hands-on understanding of real-world engineering problems and solutions. The students work on projects that involve design constraints, budgets, reviews, and deadlines, and the two-semester course requires them to integrate design, manufactur­ing, service engineering, and business realities into the engineering curriculum.

The winning effort was also a good opportunity for its sponsoring organization, the Army. The Army was able to sponsor a team to work specifically on a project to answer a specific need, in this case the quickly deployable field tower. In return for its sponsorship, the Army benefitted from the creative thinking of the very best undergraduate engineers – and research-minded faculty – and a potential pool of future recruits.

In the end, the Army was handed a working scale model of its tower. On May 14, the winning team delivered its tower prototype to Natick, demonstrated it for Army personnel, and recommended some additional features to make the tower even better. Those features included a set of telescoping adjustable legs for additional leveling. The UMass team also suggested enclosing the pulleys and winch system to avoid jamming from sand or ice build-up.

What was the ultimate reward from for the five seniors after completing their project? They gained a wealth of real-world mechanical engineering experience to take with them as they begin their careers. They learned how to function effectively on a winning team of engineers. They tested out all the learning and skills they had gained during MIE’s four-year curriculum. And they discovered how to deliver an engineered product on time, on budget, and on target.

Oh, and one more thing. On their way home from Natick after delivering their project, the five students were treated to all they could eat at the Cheese Factory. What a perfect way to cap off an MIE education! (May 2013)