The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Sponsors Support Senior Capstone Design Course

Frank Sup and colleagues in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department have lined up six sponsors for his Senior Capstone Design Course to support the MIE educational process and provide fascinating design projects for six of the 11 teams in the course. The projects range from optimizing solar arrays to creating a new energy-saving door for large, inflatable, U.S. Army tents. Sponsors donate $3,000 to the MIE department, of which $500 goes toward the materials that a team needs to create its prototype, and the remaining $2,500 supports the MIE Innovation Shop, where all the work for the senior course takes place.

“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.”

Meanwhile, the students are getting real-world engineering experience, Sup notes. They take on the actual engineering problems as faced by a 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 company.

One of the six sponsors is Hyperion Systems LLC, an Amherst company which designs, manufactures, and markets an innovative (patent pending) photovoltaic system designed to keep farmland in production while generating solar energy. Sup’s students will study the current physical design of Hyperion’s solar arrays and explore ways to make the systems lighter and less expensive to build and maintain.

“Hyperion makes mixed-use agriculture possible,” says Sup. “Their concept is being able to put solar arrays up in any farm field and still be able to grow crops or have livestock grazing. The company has an initial design, but the designers feel improvements can be made to reduce manufacturing costs and make it more economical for the farmer.”

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 will be working to improve energy efficiency in a paint-drying process for New England Wire

“They have a large oven as part of a paint-drying process their display racks go through,” says Sup. “Presently they’re looking at improving the thermal energy efficiency by finding ways to recapture some of the lost heat, adding insulation, and improving thermal air flow.”

PRIMA-Electro in Chicopee, which designs, manufactures, and markets industrial-grade electronics, CNC, and motion-control products, wants an MIE team to build upon a successful Senior Design project the company sponsored in the fall of 2011. The project will continue the development of a system for measuring the power of a laser beam capable of cutting through several inches of steel, such as might be used in shipyards and the automotive industry. What the company wants to develop is a calibration system to measure not only the laser power but the laser position of the beam, so both can be integrated into the product.  

The Army-Research, Development, and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass., which develops support items for the U.S. military, would like 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 tent doors haven’t changed in the last 30 years, and they don’t close snuggly,” says Sup. “So, if you put all this money into a tent facility, and yet you leave the doors inefficient, you’re losing a lot of money, fuel, and creating extra risk for soldiers. The Army wants an energy-efficient, self-closing door.”

The Savage Arms firearms manufacturer of West Springfield is asking Sup’s class to come up with an automated or semi-automated process to load ammunition into a new type of magazine design, prior to the live-fire-quality testing each rifle undergoes. The challenge, explains Sup, is to develop a process that will work for three different sizes of magazines and be more efficient than hand loading. Students will be able to test their design with dummy rounds.

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 would like 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.”

Sup’s students will do a materials study to determine how they can add durability and longevity to these building materials so they won’t fail prematurely due to the stress placed on them from temperature changes.

As anyone can see, team sponsorships all go to a good cause.

“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.” (September 2012)