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Friday | 24 February, 2012 | 2:44 pm

Expo of ingenuity

By Nick Wright

Omax Corp. among judges at Ga. Tech’s student showcase of design, inventions

February 2012 - This past fall, as many college students scrambled to write final papers and cram for semester exams, seniors at Georgia Tech’s George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering designed, fabricated and presented prototype solutions for real-world problems. Under the auspices of academics, students learned firsthand that necessity is the mother of invention. 

At the Fall 2011 Capstone Design Expo, 40 guest judges evaluated student projects, which a company that submitted a design obstacle or challenge beforehand sponsored, according to Steve Brown, director of government educational solutions for Omax Corp., Kent, Wash., and one of the judges. 

“I was pretty impressed with the degree and knowledge [the students] had not only of the design project but what the company made,” Brown says. Other judges represented companies such as Shell Oil Co., Coca-Cola Co. and Medtronic Inc. Forty groups of four to six students set up demonstrations for their prototypes, ranging from medical devices to retractable awnings. 

Students fabricated the projects in the school’s Invention Studio, a 24-hour, student-run facility containing advanced machining, forming and finishing equipment, including Omax’s 2626 JetMachining Center, an abrasive waterjet. Many of the students used the 2626 Jet Machining Center for their prototypes, says Craig Forest, assistant professor at the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. 

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It’s a powerful experience for the students to see a tangible manifestation of their design and creative energy, he says. “That’s the idea behind the Invention Studio. There’s about half a million dollars worth of machine tools in there, and the Omax waterjet is one of them. It’s a real workhorse.” 

One of the inventions was a bicycle gearing mechanism that compressed air into a chamber to aid in braking, according to Brown. The students ultimately wanted to pursue the project for Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) trains. “The gear was about six inches in diameter, made out of 1/8-inch-thick aluminum, probably had 30 teeth on it, and it was very precisely cut on the waterjet,” Brown says. 

The judges evaluated each prototype on five criteria: creativity, practicality of design, proof of concept, quality of analysis and clear communication, says Forest. The winning project was a device that determines how a patient’s blood clots, designed to personalize dosages of Plavix, a drug used to treat heart disease, according to the university’s website. 

“The belief here is that to graduate the best mechanical engineering students we can, they need to know how things are made from doing rather than just textbooks and calculators,” Forest says. “They realize a whole world of tolerancing and manufacturing challenges, assembly and costs, things they never realized before.” 

Job prospects 
Omax supplies waterjets directly to many colleges around the country as a part of the company’s reduced-price University Package program. With experience using machine tools and waterjets, students can be prepared when they enter a manufacturing position, Brown says. 

“They’ll go out in the industry, and they remember their experiences with the waterjet and how easy it is to use,” he says. “You can go from a design to prototype in 15 minutes, and that’s what makes them so attractive.” 

Knowing how to use such technology makes the mechanical engineering students attractive to employees, as well. Although the Capstone Expo is held in an academic environment, it provides the opportunity for students to find jobs with sponsoring companies. Forest says each semester, the program graduates about 200 students. He estimates about one-third of last-semester seniors have jobs lined up after graduation. “We’re graduating more mechanical engineering students than any other school in the country,” he adds.

From the waterjet to CNC milling, sheet metal bending and welding, “the students are learning the full spectrum of metal prototyping processes by doing,” Forest says. 

Sponsoring companies benefit by putting their brand and project challenges in front of graduating students, who in turn, receive education and the prospect of employment. 

“The Expo is one of the highlights, but every single day there’s a beehive of activity here in the Invention Studio,” says Forest. MM

 

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