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Industry support adds potential for capstone projects

Annemarie Hoyer holds the quadracopter she and her capstone group designed and constructed for their Senior Capstone Design project. The project was one supported by multiple industry sponsors.

Capstone: the high point; crowning achievement. For Mizzou Engineering seniors, as well as the thousands of students on the MU campus, it’s a word that signifies the end of the road, a final achievement in an undergraduate career, and sometimes the project that opens doors to the future.

Senior Capstone Design projects aim to find a solution to a problem. Sherif El-Gizawy, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, changed his philosophy of teaching the course from paper-only design using textbook problems 20 years ago. He now teaches the class as an applied industrial design project experience with the requirement to go through the entire design process including building and testing prototypes of capstone projects.

El-Gizawy’s capstone students have benefited from his industry research partnerships as these associate companies, realizing the untapped resource of engineering undergrads, have contributed thousands of dollars for capstone projects, sometimes proposing a problem for students to solve.

The capstone design project presented to Annemarie Hoyer’s group was derived from a research idea proposed by engineering industry partner Boeing. The group was tasked to design and construct an unmanned aerial quadracopter vehicle.

“The idea for the project started off as an idea for research, and it kind of funneled its way to capstone,” said Hoyer, now a first semester graduate student.

Her group’s work on this project was the beginning of a three semester-long project, whereby her capstone group will pass their results onto the next group. The findings after the third semester capstone’s work on the quadracopter project will be presented to the company.

Hoyer’s group, which included fellow graduating seniors Chimereze Oji, Tim Will, Thomas Hellm and Trenisha Ford, came up with a design that, when fully assembled, weighs less than three pounds with a potential primary function for surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

However, size did not preclude added features. The vehicle, whose cost totaled slightly more than $1,000, also has a few tricks up its sleeve. Hoyer said the vehicle can detect its own battery level, has the ability to fly on a preprogrammed autopilot function and can land on its own.

“It has sonar, which helps it with its landing, so it doesn’t just fall to the ground,” Hoyer said. “It also has GPS and telemetry, so that it will send and record information, such as wind speed or any other weather conditions. It will send back its location and post its orientation to the ground station.”

Another industry partner, STRATASYS, a direct digital manufacturing company, supported several projects, including the quadracopter project, not only financially, but by providing materials, advice and training on the use of their equipment used to produce design prototypes.

“This company came in and said, ‘We need to train capstone students on this type of technology,’” El-Gizawy said.

Hoyer was one of these students. She received training in fused deposition modeling (FDM), a method of materials construction her group used to build the arms for the quadracopter. FDM is an emerging modeling technology within industry, also known as rapid prototyping. This type of experience also makes students more attractive to companies when they begin their job searches.

The company provided the FDM equipment to El-Gizawy’s lab for research he is conducting.

For most mechanical engineering capstone projects, funding comes from a variety of sources. Some projects are imagined and funded by an industry sponsor. Other times, industry sponsors will provide funding, not necessarily for a specific project idea, but because its representatives like the work that occurs in the capstone course.

Industry sponsor Honeywell’s Kansas City facility , a company that specializes in energy and materials technology, sponsors a project every semester one of last semester’s capstone projects to examine the optimization of a handling system for its Kansas City plant.

Other industry partners, while unable to fund an entire project, find ways of partially funding or helping capstone groups with their projects.

Shane Corl's capstone group worked on designing and construction a battery that would power the vehicle used by the MU Electric Car Club.

In another twist on corporate sponsorship, senior Shane Corl’s capstone group worked with industry partner Dow Kokam when designing a battery that would power the vehicle for the college’s Electric Car Club.

Dow Kokam offered the club an affordable price for lithium cells needed to make a battery that could power the car. Corl, who interned with the company last summer, said he talked with company executives about working with the club.

“Some of the batteries they make are actually for vehicles,” Corl said. “Working there, I got a lot of experience, and I was able to work out a deal on these cells.”

Industrial Technology Development & Management (I-Tech D&M), LLC and the Industrial Technology Development Center, which is part of the mechanical engineering department, provided technical and in-kind support to the project, as one of the student organization projects.

Since many club members working on the battery also were taking the capstone course, it seemed fitting that the group make the battery design its capstone project.

The end result is a battery consisting of 768 notecard-sized cells, arranged into two units that each measure about two feet by three feet and six inches tall. The batteries have the output ability to power the car — a 1997, two-door Ford Explorer — to a 50-mile range.

STRATASYS also contributed support to this project by way of the casings used to house the cells. The project cost totaled about $5,000, not including the lithium cells, which were acquired before the project took on capstone status.

El-Gizawy said the distribution of funds depends on the project. While some companies specify a project idea, other companies simply offer support because they like the aim of capstone projects. He said he looks at each project individually for funding.

“There are some projects that don’t need too much, but another that may need $5,000 to $6,000. The department gives us a maximum of $500 per project. In cases like this, where the project is two or three semesters long, I draw money from that pool and put it toward that particular project,” he said.

Benefits to both students and companies are evident. Besides students completing capstone projects that give them real, applied engineering experience, there is also the opportunity for students to work with the companies that might consider hiring them.  And funded projects may create additional capstone opportunities that can extend beyond one semester.

“It’s definitely possible to have a similar project, but reproduced for a different vehicle, and have completely new ideas come out of it,” said Corl about the possibility for the electric car creating other capstone opportunities.

Hoyer said her group gained the experience of working together with people of different expertise.

“That’s how it works in industry,” Hoyer said. “Not everybody who works on an aircraft knows the same thing. You’ve got special people that have their expertise in certain areas, and you know they can cover that.”