The forward thinking SEAS faculty and the opportunities they offer our students reflect the intellectual curiosity and practical experience they share and bring to the classroom and laboratories. Our professors ensure that our students are exposed to current technology while never losing sight of the unchanging fundamentals.
At our Fall 2015 senior design exposition, Dr. Kevin Craig set an ambitious goal of having six multidisciplinary teams consisting of biomedical and mechanical students design a computer-controlled electro-mechanical dynamic system that could be used afterward as an experiment/demonstration for the junior-level Modeling and Analysis of Dynamic Systems course and Mechatronic System Design course.
What this entailed was having teams physically and mathematically model their proposed systems, design a control system, simulate their operation using Simulink and LabVIEW, and then incorporate the sensors, motors, and mechanisms into the actual physical system. The real-time control was implemented using the National Instruments myRIO, a powerful real-time controller used at select universities, such as MIT and Georgia Tech, in similar courses. The most challenging part, after they created the virtual prototype, was to fabricate the actual prototype, where the students learned the tolerances involved in machining and the limitations of different structural material choices.
The final products which emerged from this semester-long process include a Self-Balancing Transporter which would remain stable when pushed off its equilibrium position; a Magnetic Suspension System to maintain an object suspended beneath a magnet away from physical supports so that, for example, it could be coated with paint in one step since all sides are exposed; a Linear Control Motion System, designed for the FESTO Corporation as an exhibition display; an H-Bot Gantry System, to be used for two-dimensional positioning of tools performing some function on a conveyor belt; a One-Dimensional Shake Table, to simulate the back and forth accelerations of an earthquake on a model building placed on the table; and a Simple Pendulum with an accelerometer and rate gyroscope mounted on the pendulum mass, using a technique called sensor fusion, to create a virtual sensor to accurately generate the pendulum angle.
Mechanical engineers now work in a world of real-time computer control, virtual sensors and other devices that did not exist only a few years ago. To see the curriculum enriched by exposure to mechatronics is an indication of the willingness of committed faculty like Dr. Craig to stay on the cusp of what is available technically, while still demanding the rigor of mathematical analysis of dynamic systems. I applaud his contributions in this field, and look forward to recounting what some other faculty are doing in upcoming installments of this column.