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Students imagine and create a one-of-a-kind compact manufacturing system

When it comes to household projects, Murphy’s Law tends to pop up a lot. How many trips to the hardware store did your last home repair project take? Probably more than one. As boring as all those trips are, you end up with the right size, the right color, the right part. But what if the part you need isn’t right down the road? Could a system be designed to make spare parts for people working in remote locations like on the International Space Station? This question was addressed by three engineering students at Colorado Mesa University as part of a proof of concept project during the spring semester of 2021.

With funding from the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, CMU mechanical engineering technology students Steve Inman and Zak Winemiller, and Bennett Russell, mechanical engineering student at CMU / CU Boulder, have tackled this problem.

Such a system would face considerable limitations. It should be reliable, low-maintenance, simple to use, compact and portable, and the storage space for raw materials and the work area would be limited in space. But that’s exactly the kind of problem Chris Penick, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and the project’s educational advisor, wants students to learn how to solve.

“We push students to learn how to solve problems, given the constraints of the real world,” said Penick. “Practicing engineers will face these same types of constraints. “

“We push students to learn how to solve problems, given the constraints of the real world. -Christopher Penick, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering

Students successfully integrated stand-alone components including a 3D printer, a computer numerically controlled (CNC) milling / manufacturing station, a camera for quality control, and a robotic arm to move the part throughout the process.

These are existing “tools” that don’t normally work together, Winemiller explained. “The components weren’t talking to each other. One of them was even running on higher voltage ”, making communication between tools the most difficult part of the project.

The team’s compact manufacturing system is capable of making small plastic parts, but it could be adapted to use metal or other 3D raw materials. Each component can also still be used independently.

Other integrated manufacturing systems are in use, said Winemiller, “but not at the scale of ours. It is a miniature version and breaks down for transport.

Their invention will first be used in the classroom as a demonstration model in Penick’s industrial control course, as well as in the advanced manufacturing class of Sarah Lanci, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

“This project really highlights the integration of two different areas of engineering study,” said Penick, “which looks like what’s happening in the real world.” And maybe one day soon, out of this world.

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Written by Deborah Dawes


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