Real-world education

Many newly minted control and automation engineers find they need months of training to learn how their employers apply their technologies because of lack of coordination between schools and employers.

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Jim Montague, Executive EditorBy Jim Montague, Executive Editor

Back in ye merrie olde Middle Ages, enraged villagers of Oxford and Cambridge in England occasionally invaded the universities and massacred dozens of students and professors. No kidding. In fact, Cambridge was founded by Oxford scholars on the run from angry townsfolk. The reason? Different governing bodies, different priorities, different needs, and folks all sharing one small space.

Things have improved since then, but tension between academic institutions and their surrounding communities and businesses—so-called “town-and-gown” issues—have simmered and sometimes boiled over through history. So it’s no wonder that universities and their local communities and business have often missed chances to cooperate on projects that might have benefited all three. Certainly, many community colleges and technical schools and programs directly link instruction to the manpower needed by their surrounding businesses and industries, and more institutions are catching up.

This academic/industrial coordination is increasingly crucial because graduates of many mechanical, electrical, computer and other engineering programs arrive at their new jobs only to find that much of what they just learned is now obsolete. Many newly minted control and automation engineers find they need months of training to learn how their new employers apply their technologies—a highly inefficient state of affairs. Some of these training gaps are due to rapidly advanced technologies, but they’re also caused by a lack of coordination between the schools and employers. 

To teach practical, plant-floor control and automation in the classroom, Tri-State University (TSU) in Angola, Ind., requires its senior mechanical engineering students to compete a two-semester “Capstone” design project. Undergraduates in the 10-year-old program work in groups of three to five to build and test working models that include current control and automation technologies, and bring in electrical or computer engineering if the project uses especially complex electronics or programming. Though the university reports its Capstone program is unique at the B.S. degree level, it’s now starting a master’s program that will have the same practical emphasis.

“The goal is to teach theoretical and practical engineering, so our students can begin working as soon as they enter the market,” says Ramiro Bravo, PE, Ph.D, Tri-State’s assistant dean for graduate studies and mechanical engineering professor.

Ideas for the projects come from national engineering competitions, faculty research, local industry and students’ cooperative employment assignments. Local firms that support Tri-State’s students include Delphi, Vestal, Chase Copper & Brass, ThermaTrue and Parker Hannifin. This year’s notable Capstone projects include:

  • A microscale device for cooling and dissipating up to 1,000 W of waste heat from dime-sized electronic chips.
  • A machine for automatically aligning up to six-ton newsprint rolls by shooting a laser beam through the paper to hit a target that sends data to motors that can adjust the table supporting the roll.
  • A control system for cooling plastic injection molds by more closely regulating the temperature of water entering the mold.
  • An autonomous robot that can enter a burning building, distinguishing between the heat from a fire and any people there, and help put out the blaze.
  • A small truck with a 10-hp, single-cylinder engine that can carry a half-ton payload over unimproved roads in developing countries.

This year’s Capstone projects will be exhibited at Tri-State on April 27. Stop by if you get the chance.

“Industry needs practical engineers who can go to work on projects from day one,” says John Pittman, Tri-State’s board chaiman. “This is becoming increasingly important as more applications more tightly integrate mechanical, electronic and computer controls. Mechanical design guys must now have the knowledge and experience to integrate their mechanical designs with control systems and automation.” As a result, Tri-State also will require its juniors to take a mechatronics course this coming fall. “We try to predict what skills our students are going to need when they graduate in four years,” he adds.

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