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Senior Design: Mechanical Engineers Working on Real-World Projects, Oct. 8, 2008

This is the second in a series of articles about the senior design classes in the engineering programs at New Mexico Tech. Previously profiled was the Electrical Engineering class. Next up: Petroleum Engineering and Materials Engineering.

By Thomas Guengerich

SOCORRO, N.M., October 8, 2008 – New Mexico Tech senior engineering majors are starting their most significant projects – Senior Design Clinic. In each engineering discipline, Tech seniors must complete a major project to earn their diplomas.

The mechanical engineering Senior Design Clinic class features 75 students working in 13 teams on a variety of projects from industry, New Mexico Tech research divisions, the military and engineering societies.

Instructor Warren Ostergren said mechanical engineering students will be challenged to design, fabricate, test and potentially implement significant product or process improvements over the course of the design clinic.

“They’re actually working on real-world design problems,” Ostergren said. “Employers are interested in bringing up students quickly – not just in design work, but the design process too. Students need the technical design skills, but if they know the design process, they can step into a job anywhere. When these students look at job offers and internships, you can see the effect of this program.”

Senior design classes have been around for many years, but were only formalized as an integral part of the engineering curriculum over the past five years. ABET, the engineering accreditation organization, strongly urged Tech – and all universities – to implement such classes.

“These senior design clinics – or capstone projects – are great programs,” said Dr. Peter Gerity, vice president of academic affairs. “It’s practical experience in a team environment. We train our students in the same mode of industry. They get the awareness they need to enter the workforce.”

While some departments require only seniors to complete a design clinic, the mechanical engineers start their “senior design” as juniors and work for two years on their projects.

“Students are advised by their sponsors and the members of the mechanical engineering faculty,” Ostergren said. “In addition, they don’t hesitate to ask for help from faculty members in other engineering departments. This is a tremendous help to our students.”

Ostergren has developed partnerships with a wide range of project sponsors, including GE, Honeywell, Eclipse Aviation, Holloman Air Force Base, Northrop-Grumman, Aerojet and UniRac Corp. A local sponsor this year is the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which has asked students to design a new cryogenic test facility for transmitters.

To open the semester, the 75 students heard explanations about each project and they selected their top choices. Most seniors stay with the same project they worked on as juniors, while juniors tend to be spread out over the 13 teams. On September 23 and 25, the class members gave their first oral presentations.

“It was very impressive to see how quickly the juniors, who had only worked on their projects a short time, became very knowledgeable in their sponsors’ technology,” Ostergren said. “The true spirit of concurrent engineering is emphasized in their work.”

The class features five new projects: designing a mount for photovoltaic solar modules for UniRac Corp. of Albuquerque; two projects to streamline performance of the 10-mile-long Holloman High-Speed Test Track at the Air Force Base in Alamogordo; an Aerojet project to devise a non-destructive method of measuring blast impacts and an aerodynamic project for a Society of Automotive Engineers annual airplane design competition.

One Holloman-sponsored team will design a “slipper gate,” which will allow the high-speed cart to be inserted onto the track at any point. The other Holloman-sponsored team will design an adjustable pull-down system which will allow a high-speed cart to disengage easily from its payload.

The aeronautics team aims to compete in the national SAE competition in the spring of 2010 and sooner, if practical.

The Aerojet-sponsored team is developing a non-destructive method for accurately measuring impact damage on steel targets.

Continuing design projects include work sponsored by Sandia National Laboratory, Northrup-Grumman, the mechanical engineering department, General Electric, Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center, Society of Automotive Engineers and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Students working with Sandia will design and build a heliostat, which is a large mirror array that collects solar energy. Their main goal is to make a heliostat more economical and efficient at tracking the sun’s movement, Ostergren said.

The Northrup-Grumman team is working on a new high-powered laser that can maintain alignment in a high-vibration environment. Ostergren said this project employs very tight tolerances.

“They have a long way to go, but they have made a lot of progress, considering how advanced this project is,” he said. “They have had outstanding interaction with the sponsor and they’ve been a model for team interaction.”

The mechanical engineering sponsored team is working on an artificial lung. Specifically, they are doing basic science using fluid mechanics in the exchange of oxygen in the blood stream. Ostergren said the team’s biggest challenge will be to just build a prototype to demonstrate the fluid-oxygen exchange.

The General Electric team is continuing its work on devising a new economical method for painting outlet vanes on aircraft engines. The team is also tasked with designing an economical method of capturing and reclaiming heat from the shop compressors, so that energy can be used in the facility’s heating system during winter months.

The EMRTC team is working on perfecting a closed bomb system that can accurately measure the properties of explosives. In short, the team is designing a sophisticated device that will measure pressure and temperature as a function of time – in a closed system.

The Air Force Research Laboratory is sponsoring a team that will try to improve on last year’s effort to design a vehicle stopper – a device that allows soldiers to stop vehicles without damaging the body or the engine.

“Last year’s design had a failure of one component during test,” Ostergren said. “The sponsor liked the design and encouraged the team to modify it and go back to test this semester. So, we’ll keep working on it.”

Failure happens from time to time, but Ostergren said failure of design does not necessarily represent a failure of learning. Students are also graded on how they learn the design process – teamwork, quality of work, oral and written presentations and quality of concept.

Gerity said senior design clinics offer experience that prepares students for a career.

“They are learning the most valuable lesson they can learn in higher education,” he said. “It absolutely requires total teamwork. They recognize through real life, hands-on experience that each team member is important. You don’t learn that from reading a book. It really gives students a leg up as they enter the industry.”

The mini-baja team – perhaps the most high-profile team in the class – didn’t win the national event last year. However; they finished a very respectable 17th overall out of 115 teams from major universities across North America and 3rd in the design presentation category. This year, the mini-baja team is aiming for continued improvement and a top 10 finish at nationals.

– NMT –