Ask engineering managers about the quality of recent engineering graduates and you’re likely to get more than a few sighs. In fact, a recent Design News article was titled, simply, “Lack of Qualified Engineering Candidates.” According to many readers, one of the biggest deficits among newly minted engineers is a lack of real-world problem-solving skills.
An innovative program at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago is addressing this deficit. The Interprofessional Projects Program (IPRO) was launched in 1995. Today, it is a requirement for all IIT undergraduates and was recently recognized by the National Academy of Engineering as an example for other universities. In the IPRO program, teams of 10 to 15 students work together to solve complex, open-ended, real-world problems. An IPRO project differs from a traditional capstone engineering project because students from different disciplines work together. A typical team might include mechanical, electrical, and civil engineers, along with computer scientists, architects, and even psychology majors.
Many of the projects are sponsored by companies including Motorola, Nokia, Argonne National Laboratory, and A.M. Castle, among others. There are also service-oriented projects, done in collaboration with local community organizations and non-profits. Some projects are based on ideas developed by the students themselves.
On November 30, IIT students presented this semester’s crop of projects. The students manned trade-show style booths and gave conference-style presentations to a panel of judges drawn from the Chicago-area professional community.
One of the longest-running IPRO projects is sponsored by A. Finkl & Sons, a manufacturer of custom forgings and tool steels for forging dies, pressure die casting, and plastic injection molding. This project has been going on for more than six years. Its goal is to develop an automated tool monitoring system for a vertical milling machine used to de-scale and square up huge slabs of steel. Currently, Finkl relies on operators to find and replace broken cutting inserts before the broken insert can do too much damage.
In previous semesters, student teams have investigated tool monitoring techniques including power meters, microphones, and accelerometers. This semester’s team explored the use of RFID tags. The students modified the tungsten carbide cutting tools to include a conductive path, made from silver paint, connected to an RFID transmitter near the cutting head. If the tool is damaged, the circuit will open, and the RFID tag will stop transmitting. Student-written software monitors the RFID signals and shuts off the machine when a tool is damaged. The students also used FEA to make sure that their modifications wouldn’t lead to premature tool failure. Guy Brada, Finkl’s chief metallurgist, says that the students’ proposal has merit, and will be investigated further.