$395,000 NSF grant yields opportunities

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The Fish Bowl, a phrase affectionately used by students and faculty to describe a first floor classroom in Kettering's Academic Building, was packed with students and administrators. On a table along the far wall sat crumpled bags of chips and pretzels accompanied by several two-liter bottles of soda. People sat at tables nibbling and sipping as teams comprised of Mechanical Engineering and Manufacturing Engineering majors from Lucy King's MFGG-490 Robotics course and Jackie El-Sayed'sMECH-312 Machine Design class stood at the front of the room in the spring of 2002 and gave Power Point presentations  regarding the status of their prototype robot gripper collaborative projects.

The goal of this project was to engage groups of students from different areas of engineering disciplines to design, analyze, fabricate, install and test a robot gripper to pick up injection molded parts from the molding machine. Students worked together during common lab sessions and outside of class, which provided many simultaneous design and manufacturing process information development and changes. This endeavor provided an effective learning environment for students to advance from upstream to downstream courses. According to many of the students who participated in this project, the experience will be of great benefit to their engineering careers. More importantly, the results of this first-time collaborative effort were fruitful and in most cases were well below the allotted budget to complete the project.

But beyond this first attempt during the spring 2002 term to integrate two different engineering disciplines and courses lurked something more: the opportunity to document class integration results and submit a proposal to the National Science Foundation that would continue this integration on a higher level and create greater opportunities for students, industry partners, faculty, staff and under represented students from the local community.

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King recently received confirmation that her grant proposal, titled "Vertical and Horizontal Integration of Manufacturing Courses in Engineering Curricula," received support from the NSF and won the highest ranking from the review committee among all submissions. Her proposed program is multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional in nature, and draws on the expertise of Kettering Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Jackie El-Sayed '86, Industrial Engineering Professor Tony Lin, and faculty at Oakland University, Utah State University and Worcester Polytechnical Institute in Worcester, Ohio, to help integrate courses in Manufacturing, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering into the Kettering curriculum. Based on how this project develops, the Kettering experience could serve as a model for this type of integrated educational experience for schools throughout the United States.

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King explained that the NSF funding will help fund the purchase of new FANUC robots, milling equipment, simulation software and support for beta site development for posting and sharing project results between partner schools and interested parties.The goal of the three-year project, however, is to define a unique and novel model with strategies, processes and teaching tools and materials to vertically integrate Manufacturing courses, horizontally integrate Mechanical and Industrial Engineering courses, and extend this model to other universities through the country. The project will establish a streamlining process that allows students to move fluidly from one course to another with continuity, thus allowing them to carry the knowledge and skills gained from a variety of different engineering course work. Students from different engineering disciplines receive the chance to interact and work with each other, a process that forms the foundation of a solid multi-disciplinary education and represents the trend taking place in industry and business.

On a broader level, the project forms strategies for inter-departmental collaboration, helps define a process for integration, and develops teaching tools that are both hands-on and web-based. These aspects then allow King and other investigators to streamline course progression, consolidate lecture and laboratory material for beta testing, and finally disseminate project results to a wider audience.

King explained that perhaps one of the greater benefits of this NSF grant and funding is the impact it will have on Kettering students.

"With the new equipment and resources this grant will help us purchase, students will be able to conduct computer simulations to learn about a work cell setup before building it," she said. "So they gain valuable experience in the computer simulation used in industry to design a cell operation, then go and physically put the cell together, which gives them the hands-on experience our corporate partners require in their engineering professionals," she added.

She also noted that another important element to this process is the project management skills students learn. They basically must work together in teams to create design drawings of the device they are charged with creating, select material, and plan the cell operation using robotic equipment. By working with Mechanical, Manufacturing and Industrial Engineering majors, they receive expertise on all aspects of the project. "Companies need young engineers who have experience in this sort of project collaborative work," she said. "It's necessary for students to develop an integrated knowledge about how to move an idea from the design phase to product realization."

This project is expected to yield the development of three important tools: a web-based communication resource that allows efficient web-based video-streaming and remote control of equipment; a well-equipped, state-of-the-art laboratory to help support network communication, off-line programming, virtual and real operations; and common teaching methods and templates for standardized modes of interaction and common learning styles. King also said that this project requires a framework of communication for faculty at Worcester, Oakland, Utah and Kettering to exchange ideas, which will reinforce the implementation of the beta-site test plan.

The project, new equipment, laboratory experiments and product realization projects will be made available for use in Kettering's 21st Century Women program, which exposes girls in grades 9-12 to the excitement and fund of studying engineering through college courses and hands-on lab experiments. Additionally, this project can aid the school's University's Academically Interested Minorities (AIM) program by offering minority students a chance to explore careers in engineering, science and management through higher education, and help them improve on the academic skills needed to succeed in engineering, science and mathematics at the college level.

Kettering will apply a match to the NSF grant of $100,000, bringing the total project to $495,000. King said that without the recent donation of four robots and SimPRO simulation software from FANUC Robotics Inc. (valued at $200,000), along with a $50,000 match from Ford Motor Co., this program and course integration might have been more difficult. Richard Johnson'77, who works at FANUC Robotics headquartered in Rochester Hills, Mich., helped pave the way for Kettering to receive these important resources.

Future hopes that King has for the program include attracting enough funding to support the work of a Ph.D. student to work on the project and gain experience with all aspects of the integration; implement the use of this project for graduate-level courses at Kettering to provide additional experience to students; and to develop deeper industry partnerships by working with company leaders in obtaining sponsored projects that use the new resources and employ Kettering students.

"We are fortunate to win this NSF grant," King concluded. "Not only does it help our students and faculty, it provides new research and educational opportunities for our industry partners and students from the local community."

Written by Gary J. Erwin
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