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"The Innovation Showcase highlights the wonderful work our students are doing, from freshmen year to the culmination of senior capstone projects,” said Ann McKenna, chair of the engineering and engineering technology departments at the College of Technology and Innovation. “It’s an evolution of sophistication.”
The showcase highlights diverse high school, undergraduate, graduate and faculty projects, from a first creative venture to a complex solution to a difficult problem.
The challenges, which come from university departments and industry partners, are vetted by a faculty committee, then matched to students in a speed-dating forum at the beginning of the semester. It is use-inspired research and design that solves research problems and industry issues while giving industry leaders an up-close-and-personal look at students, many of whom they end up hiring.
The more than 160 projects on display this year range from a high school project that holds a child’s arm out of the way during pediatric surgery to new concepts for pest control, school funding and recycling, to a laptop pad that expands lecture hall desk space, and an alarm clock that reads your mind and wakes you up at the optimum time.
There’s LED street lighting, ideas for greenhouses, crop storage, lighting and water filtration in developing countries, glasses that display landing information for pilots and a study of the crowded Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport runways. Also on the list: biomedical devices that help with nerve surgery, setting broken bones or help track medications.
"What you’re going to see is a range of projects that students and faculty have physically built,” McKenna said. “They don’t send the parts out to be made. They design and fabricate them. It’s impressive, actually pretty incredible.”
The projects go beyond the traditional classroom, said Megan Workmon, student engagement specialist at the College of Technology and Innovation, who is helping organize the showcase.
“Students can become very involved in the community they are trying to help,” Workmon said. “Several groups have been working on extending the life of water pumps in the Navajo Nation, finding a way to keep them from eroding because of the sand. It becomes very personal.”
Workmon is adding a professional development layer to the showcase, helping students with suggestions on presentation and idea pitches. She also hopes to further extend showcase preparation throughout the university curriculum.
One of the projects, a device to measure micromilling tool wear in real time, was tackled by a team of students led by Jerry Gintz, a senior lecturer in the department of engineering.
Their solution is remarkable not only for its innovative approach, but also for the fact that the amazing machine they built came from scavenged and repurposed parts.
It is impossible to set a cost for the one-of-a-kind, high-tech wonder, but Gintz estimated it’s in the tens of thousands of dollars. Other machines they have made in the past have exceeded $100,000 in value.
The problem: Micromilling is the process of making tiny, microscopic metal parts for medical applications and miniature machines.
People making these parts need to monitor the wear on the cutting tool, but it is so small that it can only be seen under a microscope. Workers have to stop, remove the tool, assess its wear under a microscope, then reinstall it to continue working.
Angela Sodemann, an assistant professor in the engineering department, has a theory with a patent pending for tool registration that would allow monitoring wear by measuring the chips coming off of the tool and its resistance against the surface. She asked students to test her theory.
The solution: A machine never before seen, built like Frankenstein from disparate pieces with an added electrical current, made beautiful by its clarity and simplicity. When the tiny tool touches the cutting surface, it completes an electrical circuit, immediately halting its descent and sending a measurement to the computer, revealing by its lessening height how much it has worn down.
The team: Bryan DeCelles, Alan Down and John Cretu, all seniors in mechanical engineering technology; Sandy Lindauer, Cheyenne McAnlis and Nate Zerkle, all seniors in manufacturing engineering technology; Tom Groff, a senior in engineering; and Ben Donovan, a senior in mechanical engineering technology.
DeCelles, who was in charge of motion control and automation for the project, had to spool up quickly on hardware and software he’d never used, but said it is exciting to design a real-life concept from a theoretical idea.
Recently, the team tested the nearly finished machine. Down connected the electrical current and watched closely as DeCelles hit the computer keys to begin lowering the tool.
It touched the surface. It completed the electrical circuit. It stopped.
Down grinned and did a small engineering happy dance.
"It’s like a light switch, on and off,” he explained. “I’m pretty stoked.”
Down was the one who suggested that the parts needed to be carbon fiber, impervious to heat, rather than copper, which would degrade over time with heat and pressure.
Lindauer kept the team organized with Basecamp project management software, listing and assigning hundreds of incremental tasks.
"We broke up into mini-teams, but realized we couldn’t work in little bubbles, that we had to come back together and have meetings with all of us to keep track of all the different aspects of the project,” Lindauer said.
Cretu often worked remotely from his home on the west side of the Valley, figuring out data collection and analysis. Groff took on design and analysis, McAnlis and Zerkle worked on design and manufacturing, and Zerkle used a GoPro camera to video the actual cutting process from inside the machine, complete with flying chips and friction-reducing cutting fluid.
Donovan labeled himself the resident devil’s advocate.
"I was the guy always saying, ‘This won’t work because of x,’ making everyone justify why we were choosing to do things a certain way,” Donovan said. “Now, when someone asks us why we chose something, we all can tell them exactly why.”
Although the team had never worked together before, Gintz said they quickly gelled, becoming efficient and productive.
McKenna said the showcase is an invaluable experience for students.
"They’re learning to be professionals,” she said. “They’re learning to work together as a team, to communicate, to interact with each other and with industry.”
The things they learn will follow them throughout their career, she said.
“They are getting exposure to industry, to their discipline,” McKenna said. “Teams often go onsite with companies, where they see firsthand how processes are run. For example, in project management, different industries use different tools, and they will ask the teams to follow their process.
"It’s lifelong learning. They’re learning things that will stick with them, even if they change jobs.”