By James E. Kloeppel
Last year, while pursuing their education, UI students saved U.S. companies millions of dollars. Though exceptional, last year was not unique.
Through an ongoing partnership with industry, each class of graduating seniors in the department of general engineering must demonstrate its problem-solving skills by providing timely and economical solutions to problems faced by local and regional businesses. It's a win-win situation.
"In our capstone project design course, GE 242, we form teams of three to four senior engineering students to focus on specific problems posed by industrial sponsors," says James Carnahan, the course coordinator. "Each student team is assigned a faculty adviser who helps guide and manage the project. Both students and faculty benefit by solving problems in a real-world situation, an environment that cannot be easily duplicated in the classroom."
The problems offered by sponsoring companies are very real and have a sense of urgency, Carnahan said. "Each sponsor provides financial support for the project and is keenly interested in its outcome. The projects vary in scope and represent unique challenges to the project teams. Past projects have included product design, plant layout, quality control, waste management and economic analysis."
The senior project course has a long and successful history, Carnahan said. Since the course was implemented in 1968, more than 660 projects have been completed for more than 170 industrial sponsors. An even more impressive measure of success are the 70 awards that the student projects have won over the years in the National Student Engineering Design Competition. Sponsored by the James F. Lincoln Arc Welding Foundation, the competition evaluates projects on both technical content and clarity of presentation.
"In 1996 our student teams won 10 awards," Carnahan said. "That goes with the nine awards we received in 1995, and says something, I think, about the quality of our work."
In 1995, the UI garnered the top prize, Best of Program, for the first time. The prize was awarded to a project titled "Noise Reduction of a Wet-Dry Vacuum Cleaner" sponsored by the Eureka Co. in Bloomington, Ill. The design changes made by the student team Robert Barrett, Kimberly Meadors and John Umstead achieved a significant noise reduction with negligible suction loss and very little cost increase. The modifications have been incorporated by Eureka, and the modified vacuum cleaner is now in production.
The 1996 Gold Award went to Michael Fasolo, Wayne Lee and Diane Steinkamp, for their project titled "Glue Optimization for Package Strength." The goal of the project, sponsored by the Anheuser-Busch Co. of St. Louis, was to reduce the amount of glue required to seal the company's 12-pack cardboard cartons.
"First, we had to find out how much glue was currently being used, then we had to determine how much glue was really needed to keep the package securely closed," Steinkamp said. "We designed a machine to measure the force required to tear open the cartons, then we experimented with the placement of the glue on the cartons."
The "hands on" experience of working with a real company on a real problem offered Steinkamp and her teammates a different perspective from that normally obtained in the classroom.
The solution the students came up with eliminating one of the glue strips and repositioning the remaining two could save Anheuser-Busch more than $1.5 million a year.
While some students selected their senior projects on the basis of which ones they thought were easiest, Aaron Voegele like Steinkamp picked the one he thought was most interesting.
"Our project involved monitoring tool wear in a cold heading process in which a piece of metal is formed into a shape by being struck between a die and a punch," said Voegele. "The problem was that the punches were failing, resulting in a lot of ruined parts. We used a transducer to convert the machine's vibration into a voltage. By studying how that voltage changed, we could determine how the punch was wearing and predict the quality of the finished parts."
As a senior project, Voegele and teammates Bill Huffman and Matthew Jackowski selected an appropriate transducer, acquired data and wrote the computer software needed to analyze the data. By the end of the semester, the students had found three parameters that could characterize the machine's performance, and presented a methodology for predicting incipient tool failure. They received a Lincoln Arc Welding Merit Award for their work.
The technical challenges presented by his senior project whet Voegele's appetite for more research and more education. He is now working on a master's degree in general engineering. The project sponsor, Elco Industries Inc. of Rockford, Ill., is supporting Voegele's graduate research. And the team's faculty adviser, Henrique Reis, is now Voegele's graduate adviser.
"Professor Reis really took an interest in us and did a lot to make the research fun," Voegele said. "He kept us on the right path, even when we wanted to run in other directions."
"In this course, you really get out of it what you put into it," Voegele said. "Your past performance is no guarantee of how well you will perform, because in this course it's largely a matter of ideas. There is no answer sheet, and there is no teaching assistant to grade your work. You're pretty much on your own."
The tremendous variety of issues the students face in their senior projects gives them an early chance to put their engineering education to work, said coordinator Carnahan. "The course offers mainline engineering experiences similar to what students will encounter in their first jobs."
"We don't just provide the techniques or the people who can solve industry's problems," he said. "We actually solve some of industry's problems, and we use that experience to help educate our students. This is education at its best."