Engineering design project competitions

Eric Rowe-Staff Writer

Design a concrete canoe that will float on water.  Build an unmanned air vehicle to evaluate its usefulness in forest fire reconnaissance. These challenges are peculiar and are designed to push students to exercise their creativity.

Dordt’s intercollegiate student design competitions enable students to learn the practical process of creating technology.

“It’s a way to see a project from start to finish. It’s not finishing a problem in a book and saying you’re done,” said Emily Riihl, co-captain of this year’s concrete canoe.

This year at Dordt, engineering students have two opportunities to create a design and compete with colleges across the country: the concrete canoe and the student design competition.

Concrete canoe

In the concrete canoe competition, students design, construct and race a canoe made out of concrete. This will be the fourth year that Dordt students have participated in the competition sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Riihl and fellow co-captain, Amanda Donnell, started recruiting team members the first week of school, but they have been planning ever since observing the 2013 competition.

The last three canoes had the same form and basic design. Last year, the mold was destroyed when they removed the canoe.

“This gave us a great opportunity to rethink the form,” Donnell said.

They are planning on an asymmetrical shape with the back wider than the front, unlike a conventional canoe, which is widest in the middle. They hope this wedge shape will cut through the water better. The new design has a rounded bottom and straight sides to make it easier to paddle. The canoe will be 30 inches at its widest and 16 inches deep.

The regional contest will be in the spring, so there is still work to be done.

The construction crew built the new mold and needs to finish and seal it. The mix design team has been testing and will decide which concrete mixture will be used by Christmas.

The 2014 concrete canoe is named “Prairie Fire” and the concept designers are designing it around that theme.

Lighter than aircraft

The Dordt chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) is starting their second year entering the ASME student design competition.

“The civils had their concrete canoe,” said Steven Talsma, leader of last year’s ASME design project. “I wanted something for the mechanicals to do.”

Talsma researched and decided that the ASME student design competition was a good fit due to its low budget and short distance from Dordt. He gathered names of interested students and put together a team. The team met once a week to bring ideas to the table and delegate research.

The ASME design problem statement changes annually. This year, the challenge will be to build an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) able to pick up a load and carry it through multiple gates. Last year, the design was a remote inspection device that could move through obstacles and retrieve a sensor from a closed off area.

The Dordt students based their remote rover off an old Roomba vacuum since it already had motors and wheels.

Alec Woods, a junior engineering major, works with remote controls as a hobby and gave valuable insight on which motors and servos are the nicest, said John Van Weelden, 2014 chair of the design competition.

Talsma sent out an email to tell the group when he would be working in the shop, and people dropped in to help for an hour or two.

Successful mechanical designs aren’t just the mechanics of each part but also how consistently and effectively they work together.

Last year, there was a chronic problem with the robot. The remote that controlled its movement had the same frequency as the camera that showed it where it needed to go. This resulted in a fuzzy picture.

The team members made adjustments the night before the competition until they were confident it would perform. A lot of other teams had the same problem with camera frequency.

“They didn’t necessarily anticipate it as well as we did,” Van Weelden said.

The Dordt design placed fourth out of 13 teams in its region at the ASME student design competition 2013.

Van Weelden thinks that skill in syncing mechanics to controls will carry over to this year’s UAV design.

This year, Van Weelden visited underclassman engineers to promote the competition and start gathering momentum. The design competition group started meeting and brainstorming designs on Nov. 6. The group plans to meet and put together a timeline before the end of fall semester.

Due to the large group of about 20 students showing interest, Dordt may be able to send two teams and two UAVs to the competition in April.

Practical learning

A large part of any design competition is organization and delegation of work.

“Pulling an all-nighter doesn’t work in competitions,” Riihl said.

Students get their budget from the engineering department and often show professors their progress, but they are on their own to research, develop and set deadlines.

The mechanical engineering group last year divided their project into three sections. Different people worked on the robotic arm, the remote control and the driving aspects of the remote inspection device.

Both mechanical and civil engineering students said these competitions allow them to meet students from other classes. They already have relationships with classmates from doing homework and class projects together. Creating a design for competition builds those same bonds with students outside their classroom.

Dordt College’s intercollegiate design competitions give engineering students an opportunity that cannot be found in a classroom.

“It’s getting away from the numbers and getting into the creative design,” said Talsma.

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