The University Record, January 18, 1993

Engineering design class gives students ‘real world’ experience

By Rebecca A. Doyle

Mechanical engineering students get a taste of the real world in their senior design class, this year building 22 prototypes to prove out their design theories. The prototypes, many of which were co-sponsored by local industry, were on display in the atrium of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Building last month.

The theory behind the design project is that students will be better prepared to work in industry, and that local industries can benefit from fresh creative minds.

Does it work?

“Absolutely,” says Ken Prior, vice president for manufacturing at Ervin Industries. Students built a shot palletizer prototype for Ervin, automating a process that has involved manually lifting 50-pound bags of metal shot.

“The project showed tremendous creativity in concepts,” Prior says. “They took over a project that we were having trouble getting to. They proved the concept for us. Now it is back on our priority list to follow through in 1993.” Ervin Industries plans to take the prototype to an industrial machinist and incorporate it into its production line.

“I think this is an example of the general movement in top universities in the country to give students more hands-on opportunities,” says Allen C. Ward, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “It prepares students much better to work in industry.” Ward has taught the course for the past three years, but this is the largest number of prototypes that has been produced, he says.

“I was astounded at how good our students are,” Ward continues. “There is an immense range of ability in this class.”

Although not all of the projects were co-sponsored by industry, many were. Mechanical engineering staff contact industrial companies explaining the course and asking if there is interest in a joint project. Industrial sponsorship helps pay for materials for the prototypes and allows students to apply their theories in a real-world situation.

“Most of what they do in the course on an educational level involves solving equations based on a set of assumptions, which are given. In this course—for the first time, in some cases—they have to form their own assumptions,” Ward says, adding that building the prototypes gives the students an opportunity to see whether their assumptions were correct.

“They get the chance to directly experience whether they are making good judgments as they make the assumptions on which they base their analysis,” he says. “Building is the feedback part of design—it tells you whether you have done a good job of designing.”

Ward says there is “a tendency for people to look at the physical projects and think that this is equivalent to a machinist or carpenter building something, and that is not the case at all.” The design process, he says, is not the same as building to a set of plans that has already been produced. Students in the design class make assumptions about how to solve a design problem, work the equations and then build the prototype to test the assumptions.

Even if the prototypes fail to perform as proposed, it doesn’t mean a student will fail or receive a lower grade.

“We give points for a good job of analyzing what has gone wrong,” Ward notes.

Other industrial companies co-sponsoring prototypes in the fall term design course included Life Plus, a sport deck ankle exerciser; Applied Processing Systems Inc., automated plate racking; and General Motors Corp., universal gripper.