Montana State University

At MSU’s Engineering Design Fair, real projects on display

April 28, 2017 -- Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service

Montana State University senior students in the College of Engineering showcase their capstone projects during the Annual Engineering Design Fair on Thursday, April 27, 2017, in the Strand Union Building ballroom on campus.
MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-GonzalezMontana State University senior students in the College of Engineering showcase their capstone projects during the Annual Engineering Design Fair on Thursday, April 27, 2017, in the Strand Union Building ballroom on campus.
MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-GonzalezMontana State University senior students in the College of Engineering showcase their capstone projects during the Annual Engineering Design Fair on Thursday, April 27, 2017, in the Strand Union Building ballroom on campus.
MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-GonzalezMontana State University senior students in the College of Engineering showcase their capstone projects during the Annual Engineering Design Fair on Thursday, April 27, 2017, in the Strand Union Building ballroom on campus.
MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-GonzalezMontana State University senior students in the College of Engineering showcase their capstone projects during the Annual Engineering Design Fair on Thursday, April 27, 2017, in the Strand Union Building ballroom on campus.
MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-GonzalezMontana State University senior students in the College of Engineering showcase their capstone projects during the Annual Engineering Design Fair on Thursday, April 27, 2017, in the Strand Union Building ballroom on campus.
MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

Montana State University senior students in the College of Engineering showcase their capstone projects during the Annual Engineering Design Fair on Thursday, April 27, 2017, in the Strand Union Building ballroom on campus. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

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BOZEMAN – At Montana State University on Thursday, an automated machine for feeding horses, a shoebox-sized remote-control submarine and a robot capable of mining icy soil in a simulated Mars environment were among the objects on display at the College of Engineering’s annual spring semester Design Fair.

Roughly 60 teams of engineering students gestured to posters propped behind their booths, which filled a ballroom in the university’s Strand Union Building, as they explained their creations to curious visitors.

Mechanical engineering major Michelle Dworkin stood beside her team’s “quarter-size tractor,” a blue, dune buggy-sized workhorse that seemed to exert a magnetic force, drawing visitors to sit in its seat and grip the steering wheel.

“The only things we were given to start with were the tires and the engine,” said Dworkin, one of nine members of the project team, which will take the tractor to Illinois in June for a competition sponsored by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. The event will test the machine’s maneuverability, durability and power, she said.

“Everyone did a little bit of everything (on the project),” including computer-aided design, welding and other fabrication, said team member Taylor Anderson. “It makes you realize what it takes to go from a computer model to an actual product. It makes you realize the value of simplicity.”

Some projects couldn’t be displayed on a table. Amelia Farrier, who is majoring in industrial and management systems engineering, explained her team’s work to improve the efficiency of the inpatient pharmacy at Bozeman Health hospital. “The pharmacy hasn’t been able to physically grow (because of space constraints), but they are having to meet more demand,” Farrier said.

By surveying staff members, observing the pharmacy’s workflow and modeling alternative arrangements of the space, the team arrived at a recommendation to condense four workstations and re-arrange the layout to improve functionality.

“They were really excited,” said Kyle Smith, a member of the team. “When they implement the plan, it will be a welcome change for them.”

That project was one of many in which students tackled engineering challenges pitched by individuals, companies and other entities outside of MSU, including Boeing and Los Alamos National Laboratory. MSU researchers across campus also seize the opportunity to have the students design and fabricate equipment that can aid in fieldwork.

According to Robb Larson, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, project sponsors are in demand as the number of engineering students grows.

The projects, which are part of students' graduation requirements, are meant to provide students a glimpse of the open-ended design process that they’ll find in the workplace, said Rob Maher, head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

As a compressor rumbled, pumping air into a prototype that simulates the near-zero gravity of orbit around Earth and tests the ability of satellites to maneuver, Trevor Gahl, of Great Falls, explained his team’s project – a valve to better control the large, high-altitude helium balloons that researchers send skyward to obtain big-picture views of Earth or observe atmospheric phenomena.

Traditionally, the balloons rise at a steady rate until they pop because of the low pressure of the high atmosphere, resulting in rapid, uncontrolled descent, said Gahl. The goal of the project, which was sponsored by the Montana Space Grant Consortium at MSU, was to design and build a device that could release the balloon’s helium slowly, creating a controlled return to Earth.

The team’s months-long design process resulted in a coffee mug-sized fan and a hinged lid controlled by electronics housed in a small enclosure. The team tested their design last week when they released a balloon carrying the new device from near Livingston. “We had a really clean flight” in which the balloon touched down near Broadview, north of Billings, Gahl said.

“I enjoyed that this hadn’t been done before,” said computer engineering major Erik Anderson of Helena, who also worked on the valve device. “We saw the design through from beginning to end. It’s a real project.”

Most of the students at the event are earning degrees in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Students working toward degrees in other departments, including the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, present their senior projects at other forums.

Contact: Rob Maher, rmaher@montana.edu, (406) 994-2505; Robb Larson, robb.larson@montana.edu, (406) 994-6420; David Miller, davidmiller@montana.edu, (406) 994-6420.

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