Students Solve Problems, Learn Valuable Skills with Thesis Projects
It’s not unusual to hear the sound of a gong in the Academic Success Center. Students take aim at the small musical instrument in celebration of completing their thesis projects.
“They love to do that,” said Michelle Gebhardt, Thesis Program Advisor/Coordinator at Kettering. “We’ve had parents come in with the students to ring it. Some students brought party hats and a group of friends to ring it. It’s very fun to watch.”
The thesis project culminates the undergraduate experience at Kettering University. It represents not only the knowledge learned in the classroom but also the skills gained on the job through students’ co-ops.
“The real purpose of the thesis is an opportunity to apply all of the academics and co-op experience to a real-world project,” Gebhardt said. “They are managers of the projects from start to finish to showcase what they have learned.”
Students typically create a thesis project with their co-ops. Many projects have included new product development, process improvement, community enrichment and new business planning. Students are tasked with coming up with topics themselves, but they work with an employer thesis advisor and a faculty thesis advisor to complete the project.
For the co-op thesis, students are encouraged to submit their project topic during the first of their last four co-op terms and work on their thesis during their senior year to total 240 hours’ worth of work on their project. They submit their completed manuscripts to their faculty advisors by the first Friday of their last school term to allow faculty time to suggest revisions.
Once students receive the email that their thesis grade has been submitted to the Registrar’s Office, they know they’re done. That’s when they head to the Academic Success Center and the Bell Tower isn’t the only bells heard on campus.
The Next Generation of Manufacturing
Nino Caiozzo’s passion for 3D printing began in 2015 during a high school project.
“Ever since then, I have been looking at the technology and following it, and it’s really the next step in the manufacturing revolution,” he said. “... I personally think 3D printing will be big a part of the next generation.”
Caiozzo turned his passion into his thesis project at Stellantis by using 3D printing to make specialty tools at a fraction of the cost and time.
“The initial thought was to 3D print some tools just as a showcase to see what 3D printing can do outside of just designing the car,” he said. “So we ran a few tests, and they went flawlessly.”
He has been working on the project each co-op term for two years. Creating the tools starts with reverse-engineering them. With no model for many of the tools, Caiozzo had to scan them to create a model for 3D printing. While it may sound cumbersome, the results are worth it in the cost and time savings.
Some tools can cost several hundred dollars and take weeks to make, but creating them in house cuts that down to about $30 and a day, Caiozzo said. The process can even get some of the tools for future projects ready in advance.
“Once we get the finished CAD model of the vehicle, then we can reverse engineer a tool to match the product and make 3D printouts in advance of the availability of the physical product or tool,” Caiozzo said, noting that will reduce the cost to run the assembly plant in general because it will avoid downtime when something breaks. “... The more time the plant is running, the more time we’re in the green.”
Although his project will benefit his employer, Caiozzo said he sees how it has helped him and continues to help him pursue his professional goals.
“I’m loving this. I have been trying to do this for my entire time at Stellantis,” he said. “I have loved my entire time here. I wouldn’t give it up for the world. The amount of knowledge I’ve gained over the past two years has been tremendous in all of the other sectors of manufacturing at Stellantis, but I really, really like it in the digital manufacturing sector where I get to work on this 3D printing venture.”
Currently, the project’s focus is mainly hand tools, but Caiozzo hopes to expand it to smaller robotic tools or even parts.
“My plan for the future is to stay with Stellantis,” he said. “My main passions are 3D printing and virtual reality. I want to try to improve 3D printing within the automotive industry, especially. I think this experience is definitely going to help me gain the know-how of trying to introduce more processes to 3D printing.”
Elizabeth Crawford’s thesis inspired her career decision post-graduation.
“I enjoyed my thesis because it helped me get a job at Nestlé,” she said. “It pushed me to figure out what I want to do after graduation and secure a full-time job.”
In the last six months, she has been finding ways to make Nestlé’s Fremont, Michigan, plant more efficient.
“Trying to transfer that knowledge from the automotive industry, even though I’ve been in factories before, to the food and beverage industry was very challenging,” she said. “... I had to learn the industry; I had to learn the factory itself and process I was trying to work on while trying to do my thesis project.”
Her project was part of the baby food process on a crucial area that fed to the rest of the plant. Some of her suggestions included creating a new flow design and moving the process to a different plant. She also had to consider payback periods and budgetary restrictions.
“I was able to get the budgetary quote to be within a reasonable range, but down on yearly costs of the process and theoretically increased production rates and improved the overall efficiency of the process,” Crawford said.
She said she enjoyed the challenge of the project.
“I kept busy every day with relevant things,” Crawford said. “... They’ve given me a lot of responsibility, especially with it being my first time.”
That responsibility will only grow as Crawford is going to be a project engineer at a facility in Burlington, Wisconsin, after graduation. Her eventual goal is to go into project management.
“It’s taking what I’ve learned as a project engineer, but also associated with the marketing side, so I have to talk to marketing and I’ll have to talk to the consumer and figure out what they want. Then, I'll take that information to different factories and factory engineers and work with them to see how we can accomplish what Nestlé wants but also what the consumers want,” Crawford said.
Getting an Advantage
For Parker Jennings, the experience gained completing his thesis project could give him a competitive advantage over graduates from other schools in the job market.
“I am pursuing a career in industrial engineering or a similar type of engineering post-graduation,” he said. “My thesis project helps me pursue that goal because I have experience leading a large project in the industry.”
While working as a production operator at Endress+Hauser Level+Pressure US, Jennings noticed bottlenecks in the flow of the Micropilot assembly line. When he returned to his role as an industrial engineer, he conducted a flow efficiency analysis and found the line’s flow efficiency was low compared to industry standards, so he set out to fix it.
“The project was important from my company’s perspective because a better flow efficiency makes us more competitive in the market,” Jennings said. “This project was important from my perspective because it was a way for me to use all of the skills and tools I have learned and developed throughout my time at school and my co-op.”
He said his biggest challenge was at the beginning of the project because the process routing times, or the amount of time the process takes, in the system were incorrect, requiring him to create a time study to verify or correct the times.
“Even though this part of the project took a long time, it was still very important to have accurate times for the rest of the project,” Jennings said. “Without those accurate times, the line balancing that I did in the remainder of my thesis would have been useless.”
After completing the time study, Jennings constructed a staffing plan and implemented improvements.
“It was found that the number of move-and-queue days had to be decreased to make significant increases to the flow efficiency and to make the flow efficiency within the industry average,” he said. “Unfortunately, I was unable to decrease the number of move-and-queue days in the line due to the scope of my project.”
A move-and-queue day occurs when the device moves to different production areas. The more move-and-queue days in the process, the more efficiency lowers.
While the number of move and queue days was not reduced, Jenning’s project increased the efficiency from 3.15 percent to 3.28 percent by reducing the lead time by 62 minutes.
Putting Safety First
When Ian Vermeulen saw customers trying to skirt safety features that shut down machines while work was being done to them, he decided to fix the process. Vermeulen co-ops at McNaughton-McKay Electric Company, a wholesale electrical distributor that offers a variety of products, including pipes, wire and complex automation control systems.
“I’ll frequently see people bypass safety things such as sensors or curtains to be able to enter a machine that they shouldn’t be able to enter,” he said. “I created a demonstration unit in our office that has a safety scanner that scans the area, and it wasn’t able to be bypassed, and then I made a guide on how to set up that motion application where a robot or something may be moving just to show our customers how to create systems where people can’t bypass safety measures.”
The most common system uses a white curtain with two devices that shoot lasers to detect if there is a block (typically by a person), and when a block is detected, the machine shuts down. Vermeulen’s system uses a laser scanner mounted above the machine to constantly search for movement where there shouldn’t be. It also can determine where somebody is, allowing zones to be created within the machine so the entire machine doesn’t have to shut down if one zone is infiltrated.
“From a customer’s point of view, if they’re not meeting safety codes and people are getting hurt, they’ll get fined,” Vermeulen said of the system’s importance.
In some cases, his system allows the machine to continue working at a slower speed during maintenance instead of completely shutting down, which can help avoid injury but also increase production.
“The downtime is extremely low compared to what the downtime would be to stop the machine to properly follow all of the safety codes,” Vermeulen said. “So that small amount of downtime is less costly.”
He said his favorite part of the project was creating the demonstration unit because it was cool to see his idea built into a functional system. The project gave him the opportunity to become one of the more knowledgeable people on a niche topic like this.
After graduation, he said he hopes to stay with McNaughton-McKay.
Equalizing Autonomous Vehicles
Not all autonomous vehicles are created equal, but William Wakefield developed a system to work around that.
Wakefield’s co-op is at May Mobility, an autonomous shuttle developer. His thesis project included developing a universal tool and health monitor to check all the sensors and hardware of the company’s fleet, which includes a variety of vehicles.
“My tool ended up being the baseline defense to ensure a car was ready for production,” he said. “We didn’t have to waste time for days checking various scenarios.”
Each vehicle has its own configuration with various firmware needs. Wakefield’s tool ensures the autonomous drive kits added to the vehicles are configured correctly.
To develop the tool, he worked with various teams in the company and learned how each sensor plays a role in making the vehicle autonomous. With fleets in Michigan and Texas, Wakefield also had to account for how vehicle operations would differ based on their locations, which include road conditions and weather.
“My biggest challenge was the project scope,” he said. “When I started in May Mobility, we added a new vehicle, and it was originally not in the scope of the project, but we ended up adding it because once the first prototype was done, it was similar.”
Still, he said one of his favorite parts of the project was “discovering unique situations with each vehicle.”
After graduation, Wakefield plans to attend grad school and eventually earn a Ph.D. in mathematics.
“This project helped me gain some important software engineering skills and interdisciplinary skills in collaborating with different departments in the company. So when it comes to my future graduate cohort for grad school, I’ll be able to bring not only unique interdisciplinary skills and industry skills that would not be a common perspective in academia but also important software engineering skills within the mathematics field,” he said.
“I want to get a Ph.D. in mathematics. Mathematics is becoming much more intertwined with programming and computer science in order to make advances in the field,” he continued. “Those skills I learned at May Mobility were critical in that.”