The Daily Illini

MechSE Innovation Studio elevates student possibilities

By Amanda Rhee, Contributing Writer

From 3D printers, laser cutters to woodworking tools, the Innovation Studio found in the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory has it all.

The Innovation Studio was created in 2013 in order to provide undergraduate students in mechanical engineering with a space to develop their projects, whether it be for their classes or for independent work.

“The idea to create a design and build space started taking off in 2011 with faculty teaching design courses,” Ralf Moller, the director of technical services for the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering, wrote in an email.

Moller also explained the MechSE department lacked hands-on fabrication tools and equipment before the Innovation Studio was created. Because of this, fabrication for senior design projects had to be done elsewhere, such as a local machine shop.

The Innovation Studio provides the opportunity for students to fabricate their own works while doing projects as well.

“An old research lab in the Mechanical Engineering Building was initially utilized, however, we were constantly looking for more and better functional space to support the design and build initiative,” Moller said.

The equipment in the Innovation Studio was donated by a handful of sponsors, including Bosch, Inventables, Caterpillar, Chevron and the James Dyson Foundation.

Currently, at the Innovation Studio, there are four laser cutters, a 3D scanner, 24 tabletop, 3D printers, a soldering station and a fully-equipped wood shop with table, band, miter and scroll saw, as well as a belt sander and a drill press.

Moller said the 3D printers, laser cutters and drill press are the most used of all.

Students enrolled in ME 270 Design for Manufacturability, ME 370 Mechanical Design I, ME 371 Mechanical Design II, and ME 470 Senior Design Project use the studio more often.

However, Moller said you do not need to be a student in mechanical engineering to use the studio. In order to use the equipment that’s available, you would need to be trained appropriately on the equipment by an undergraduate employee.

ME 370 Mechanical Design I has been taught in the Innovation Studio for the past three semesters, and Ophelia Bolmin has been a mechanical engineering graduate teaching assistant for the course.  

This course is mandatory for all mechanical engineering students and is mostly taken by juniors. Students are assigned two projects throughout the semester.

“For this course, we have labs that are in the computer rooms and in the Innovation Studio,” Bolmin said. “This year, the first project is to design a potato cutter. Last year, the first project was a candy dispenser. (The students) are usually in teams of four and usually, in each class we have 30-35 teams. The second project last semester was a robot that climbed pipes.”

Students are able to apply knowledge learned from the classroom and implement it by creating real-life technologies with the help of the equipment in the Innovation Studio.

3D printers, laser cutters and woodworking tools are used the most by students in the Innovation Studio when creating these projects.

“The first project is mostly a user-centered design,” Bolmin said. “For the potato cutter, some students have chosen to make them for people with disabilities, chefs or for parents in the kitchen. They have different constraints for the design.”

ME 470 Senior Project Design reaches even further with practical, real-world applications. 

Christopher Marry, a graduate teaching assistant for ME 470, says his goal for his students is to demonstrate that they are the complete package in regards to engineering. This course is meant to be a culmination of everything the students have learned. 

Companies that have a relationship with the University’s mechanical engineering department sponsor the majority of the projects that are assigned in ME 470.

“For many of them, it’s their first professional experience working on a project for a real company with some amount of stakes other than their own grade,” Marry said.

Last semester, teams in ME 470 made two exhibits for the Orpheum Museum as a part of their new astronomy wing. One team made an exhibit that demonstrates the concept of rockets and gravity to children. Another team made a second exhibit called the ‘Asteroid Mine.’

“It’s something like a claw machine where you’re on an asteroid trying to mine for minerals where you can use the claw machine to take rocks to a scale to weigh them,” Marry said. “It teaches them about density about how all the rocks are the same size but different weights.”

Parts of these projects were built using the Innovation Studio, along with the dedicated lab space for ME 470.

“They certainly use the 3D printers, laser cutters, and some of the electronics like the soldering stations,” Marry said.

The creation of the Innovation Studio has brought the level of student learning to a whole new level. Students are able to use the equipment in the studio to create projects that help them become better engineers, and they are able to what they’ve learned in the classroom to real life. The projects students create will go on to impact those locally and beyond.

“The Innovation Studio has been a tremendous boom for our students,” Marry said. “It provides the ability to have all the tools students need to make a huge variety of projects all in one place.”

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