A group of UNL mechanical engineering students hoped their ambitious senior design capstone project would be an engine that would rocket them into the stratosphere.
Instead, choosing another project helped provide a launching pad for the four seniors’ careers – creating a robot to automate part of the construction process for airliners as part of the Airbus Shopfloor Challenge in Stockholm, Sweden.
“We were kind of an ambitious team from the start,” said Colton Bailey. “Our original idea going into the semester was to build a liquid-fuel rocket engine. One member of our team (Alex Drozda) works with UNL’s rocketry club, and they would like a UNL-designed rocket engine.
“After doing a month of research and learning what it takes to build a small rocket engine, we thought, ‘Maybe we need to take a step back and see something else.’ ”
While Bailey, Drozda, Kyle Stewart and Tory Weeder were working on another idea, Professor Carl Nelson got an email offering an interesting challenge.
“It described a robot that would drill holes in an aluminum panel. I thought, ‘That would be a fun activity, kind of pie in the sky, really, but wouldn’t it be great if we could send students to that competition,’ ” said Nelson, professor of mechanical and materials engineering, who works with Bill Dick as instructors on senior capstone courses.
“The timing was right. I wondered if maybe Bill has a group that hadn’t quite decided on a project. And it turned out there was.”
Bailey said the team was excited about the project from the beginning.
“We were like, ‘robots!’ I’ve worked with robots at home and was finishing up a robotics engineering minor. It’s something that’s of a lot of interest to me,” Bailey said. “Plus, if you go to test a robot and it fails you can just fix the robot. If you test a rocket engine and it fails, it explodes and you’re done. You only get the one shot.”
So in December, with only a few months before a video about the project was due to Airbus, the UNL team began hustling to meet the many deadlines that lay ahead and to get the needed parts. A grant from NASA Nebraska Space Grant and some financial support from the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering helped, too.
That’s when the team members began to start functioning as a single unit, delegating tasks within the group and defining roles. They settled on creating a modified version of Delta platform, with multiple arms. Then came realizations about all the mini-challenges involved with solving this problem – needing to have the drill rotate up to 30 degrees, locating the precise location for the holes and mitigating any vibration.
By mid-March, the team had submitted its video and waited to hear whether it would make the cut. In April, Nelson learned they had been invited to the finals in Stockholm in early June.
That trip would create challenges, too. Getting the robot to Sweden required disassembling it and packing it into luggage for the plane flight and reassembling it in the hotel room over the weekend.
“When we got there, we had a robot that was to working but ultimately wasn’t operational. We were sidelined for the competition,” said Nelson.
That setback turned into an opportunity, Nelson said, as the team was able to learn more about the engineering process by observing.
“How other people perceived the core of the problem was very different from how our team perceived it,” Nelson said. “We looked at it from a kinematic architecture standpoint – if we build the robot with parallel architecture, that will make it stiffer and better at drilling accurate holes. Other aspects of the problem, the team didn’t give as much thought to but were actually very important – localization of the panel and finding where we are on the panel so we can drill the holes where they’re supposed to be.
“One thing they learned is there is more to the problem than they realize, and that’s how it often is in real-world problems. That’s why you have design teams and not just design people. You need everybody’s perspective to fully understand the problem before you can attack it.”
It was a long shot from the beginning – being only one of two teams consisting solely of undergraduates. And even though their robot didn’t function because its motors weren’t powerful enough, the UNL team still found that its work stacks up well when compared to designs by engineers from around the world.
“One of the things we heard the most from engineers and academics as part of the conference was to not be discouraged. We were told, ‘That stuff happens,’ ” Bailey said.
Nelson sees the experience as a good starting point for the team members’ careers.
“They learned so much about real-world engineering – managing the contribution of ideas, the timeline and budget, and meeting deadlines,” Nelson said. “Hopefully, they’ll be able to articulate that and it should give their job searching a boost.”
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