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Engineering in the big leagues

Students and alum working on Mercedes-Benz headlights

Facing a new challenge is never easy.

Yet each fall, like minor leaguers eager for their big chance, electrical and mechanical engineering seniors at UNF leave the comfort of their campus training grounds and step onto a new playing field in the real world.

Companies like Mercedes-Benz USA, Stenner Pump Company and Inspired Energy welcome them into the workplace for a full year to complete senior design projects, also known as capstones.

In this innovative collaboration between industry and education, students have high hopes for success. But the assignments are challenging.

Easing the way are their mentors — representatives from each company assigned to support and assist the group. In fall 2016, 17 teams of engineering students began their senior projects under the guidance of these partners, which this year included a half dozen UNF alumni. These recent graduates — turned coaches — understand the process and the expectations. Seniors are required to design and build workable solutions to real-world problems faced by the companies. The task requires the students to put it all together — engineering knowledge, project management, budgeting and communication skills.

Testing with tech at Mercedes-Benz USA
Ryan O’Toole, ’16, is a huge fan of the University of North Florida’s senior design project.

So much so that when he started working at Mercedes-Benz USA last fall, he asked his supervisor if he could help coach a team of UNF students.

“I love that the senior design experience exists for UNF students, so I wanted to provide my own support to keep it going,” O’Toole said. He credits his capstone project with giving him the experience to move into an internship and then his first job.

O’Toole wanted that same result for his team, one of six that worked with Mercedes-Benz employees.

As an associate component test engineer, O’Toole works in the company’s Quality Evaluation Center, one business unit of a large facility that Mercedes-Benz USA operates near the Jacksonville airport. As part of that work, the company proposed a challenge: design and build a test bench for headlamps.

O’Toole explained that dealerships across the country send parts replaced under warranty to the QEC, where engineers do quality checks and look for patterns of failure. The test bench would simulate how the headlamp operates in the car, allowing employees to test its performance without spending time on installation.

Teammates Pablo Olivera, Mario Bianchi and Kristian Sipos spent the first semester creating the design to accommodate headlamps Olivera described as very advanced.

“They turn into corners, have automatic dimmers and use LED arrays that create an even distribution of light. They can even sense road conditions and reduce glare from a wet road,” Olivera said. “We wanted our design to be on par with the technology.”

To make that happen, Olivera said the team did a lot of research and self-learning. Once the building phase started in the second semester, the team relied on all the resources available to them, including faculty subject matter experts.

“For many of us, this was our first time building something high-tech,” Olivera said. “It’s really been a journey.”

O’Toole has been working hard, as well, trying to provide 100 percent support to the team. “I know the group really put in the work,” O’Toole said. “They understood everything. I really wanted them to feel successful.”

That level of support did not go unnoticed.

“We could see that Ryan wanted us to succeed, which was very encouraging,” Olivera said.

Rolling with robots at Stenner Pumps

Students working on Stenner Pump projectWhen Innovation Day arrived, it was finally time for UNF senior Michael Otero to breathe a big sigh of relief.

That’s the day in mid April when he and partners Christian Beckman, Ross Johnson, Caleb Licht and Joleen Iwaniec presented the prototype they created to solve a problem at the Stenner Pump Company, a local industry partner sponsoring three senior projects.

“By the time you get to Innovation Day, all the problems are fixed, all the revisions made and the project shows a great amount of promise,” Otero said.

Stenner Pump Company manufactures peristaltic metering pumps that are sold across the U.S. and internationally to more than 30 countries.

The company proposed the following challenge: design and build a prototype robot known as an Automated Guided Vehicle that will shuttle parts between two warehouses and withstand exposure to rain and UV light.

Overseeing the project for the company was Brian Schubert, ’16, a product and manufacturing engineer, one of five UNF alumni working there. Schubert said the role of coach is not entirely new for him. In his free time, he volunteers extensively with youth robotics programs.

“It’s rewarding to be able to give back,” said Schubert who welcomed the assignment to work with the UNF students. “I’ve been through the experience — I know the issues that might not be so obvious to them.”

The team Schubert is supporting has an advantage, he said. Several of the members participated in the Osprey Robotics club, designing and building machines for several annual competitions including NASA’s Robotic Mining Competition.

“That exposure to hands-on projects is invaluable,” he said. “Moving from design to manufacturing seems to be the biggest struggle for young engineers, so previous experience really helps.”

Schubert said his primary role was to provide design feedback to ensure that the final product would meet the requirements and needs for implementation. Occasionally, he also reminded the team of deadlines and shipping and manufacturing time constraints.

“I almost took on the role of supervisor,” Schubert said. “I wasn’t the project manager because they took on that role themselves. I just tried to make sure they were on track. And this team did very well.”

Wiring a win at Inspired Energy

What looks like an ordinary black box — at first glance — is actually a sophisticated electronic device that represents hundreds of hours of design, production and programming.

For electrical engineering students Andrew Bliss, Kristin Dilley and Dane Johansen and mechanical engineering student Juan Mata Marcano it represents the solution for the project proposed by industry partner Inspired Energy: Design the housing for a 36-cell battery-check system.

Inspired Energy of Gainesville specializes in the creation of smart battery packs with built-in electronic intelligence that provide battery monitoring, fuel gauging, battery diagnostics, encryption and more.

The students’ battery-check system is complete with a circuit board and electronic hooks to a software system with integrated relays that rapidly test the validity of 36 cells at once.

Jeff Barbera, ’16, a company technology manager, was the alum overseeing the project. Though a recent graduate, Barbera worked for years at Inspired Energy before pursuing an electrical engineering degree at UNF.

He explained that the company buys hundreds of thousands of battery cells that must all be batch tested before adding electronics and configuring them to meet customer needs. “This student project will definitely be put into production and used here,” Barbera said. “We expect it to save us time from our current process.”

He’s enjoyed his work with the students, which always involves a bit of extra coaching on project time management. “It was their first time working together as a group, and they really didn’t know how long it would take to get things done,” Barbera said. “We pushed them to do as much as they could, but also supported them. We didn’t want to stress them out — just wanted to ensure they continued to move forward and satisfied the class and their teachers.”

Barbera said the company likes to sponsor teams because they realize students need the experience with an industry-based project, as well as practice with as many tools as possible, to get that first job. “The experience we’ve provided has helped some students find work, which is nice to know.”

Members of the UNF team said the project has challenged them like nothing they’ve done before.

Bliss said the team had to learn on the job. “Within the scope of one class, we’ve done 3-D design, 3-D manufacturing, designing and developing circuit boards and programming software new to us,” Bliss said.

For Johansen, the project provided insight into what’s ahead. “It’s been good experience for us in a workplace setting, where we will have a boss and have to present our ideas and get feedback,” Johansen said.

That experience, they all agreed, has not been without stress. Yet it did provide the talking points they needed during interviewing. The entire team received job offers before the project was completed.

To Marcano, it was his greatest challenge at the University. “This is where you put everything together you’ve learned, and you put it on the line,” he said. “You have to demonstrate that you can be an engineer.”

The team behind the teams

Listening, counseling, advising, questioning, guiding, clarifying — Dr. Paul Eason and Dr. Alan Harris do it all when it comes to senior design, and have done so for the past five years. The two academic coaches combined their disciplines in 2013, grouping electrical and mechanical engineering students into the same teams, creating a more real-life interdisciplinary approach to design.

Since then, the program has evolved: expectations have increased, project funding has improved and area companies have become committed partners. For this past year, Eason and Harris oversaw 70 students on 17 teams.

From the University’s perspective, the project is the STEM engineering embodiment of UNF’s focus on community engagement, according to Eason, an associate professor and director of the Materials Science and Engineering Research Facility. Each year, seven to 10 companies sponsor teams and fully fund their projects.

For the students, the project offers a yearlong exposure to the skills they will need in the workplace — project management, communication and time management.

As for the industry partners, there are also benefits, according to Harris, an associate professor of electrical engineering. “They get to interview our students for a year,” Harris said. “Get to see them work and what they’re capable of and then get first pick on hiring them” Eason and Harris now begin their preparation for the next year. Come fall, it’s a whole new ballgame.