Student Engineering

New Lake Superior State Robotics Line Built as Senior Project

A university in northern Michigan has upgraded its robotics line lab through engineering student labor. For their senior projects, two student teams in the School of Engineering & Technology at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie have spent the school year disassembling an aging automation line and replacing it with new and slightly used equipment that will be in use for many years to come, according to Rob Penrose, one of the students.

The original line was set up in the mid-1990s and included four robots, which were added in the 2000s. The older set-up took, by Penrose's estimates, only about three days to dismantle. Set-up of the new line began in fall 2010, went on through both winter and spring breaks, and included weekends. "It's been over a full time job," he added.

The line in action.

Penrose captured the process of lab tear-down and rebuilding on video. He set up a Webcam, which took a photo of the scene in the room each time it detected motion, and then a second photo 15 minutes later. In total, he captured 3,300 images, which he edited down and turned into a short video.

Penrose was part of Team AIR (Automation Innovation Renovation), consisting of engineering and computer students, which, for the project, handled "anything that had a wire or some form of communication," he said. "That was our rule of thumb." The other group--Team PAS (Precision Automation System)--had mechanical and manufacturing students who were responsible for brackets, mounting ware, grippers on the ends of the robotic arms, and pneumatics. The latter team also had to identify the conveyor belt that would go into the new automation line.

For the new installation a professor contacted robotics manufacturer Stäubli, which gave the university a "fairly large discount for four semi-new robots."


Team AIR (Automation Innovation Renovation), consisting of engineering and computer students from the School of Engineering & Technology at Lake Superior State University.

At the end of this week, both teams will demonstrate the results of their months-long effort for the faculty and then for the public. Because of the geographic location of the university (near the border with Canada) and the area residents' fondness for all things hockey-related, the two teams jointly developed a demonstration that they thought would have broad appeal to the audience: construction of a scale-model ice resurfacer. "The four robots will assemble the parts--like Legos--to make a small Zamboni," Penrose said. "Then we have an oval type of conveyor, so the robots will be disassembling the Zamboni on the backside."

This summer the new robotics line will also be used by the university's annual camps for middle school and high school students. As Penrose explained, the camps teach the kids how to do programming of the robots to handle functions such as having a robotic hand holding a pen draw the state of Michigan and simulate flashlight assembly and packaging. Plus, the Zamboni demonstration will be added to the university tour shown to prospective students.

In the meantime, several of Penrose's classmates have already received job offers in food packaging and automation line manufacturing companies.

The endeavor has been invaluable, said the senior, who still has a couple of classes to finish before he's graduated. It has given him experience in cost assessments, working in a large team, and troubleshooting. "The cost of this type of project can range from $730,000 to $850,000. We were able to do it in less than a $100,000 with robots included," he explained. "That's a major feat--to say that I worked on a project of this caliber. It has given me the experience of troubleshooting--being able to work outside the box and find many solutions for one problem. The professors were there the entire way. They were guiding us, trying to push us if we needed to keep moving, to keep on giving us motivation. At the same time, they allowed us to do our own to work, to explore new possibilities and solutions."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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