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Crossing Disciplines PUBLIC ACCESS

A Well-qualified Elecronics Support Laboratory is Proving to be an Indispensible Part of an Interdisciplinary Engineering Education.

[+] Author Notes

John G. Witzel is the managing engineer of the Mechanical Engineering Electronics Support Lab at the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Mechanical Engineering 121(06), 68-70 (Jun 01, 1999) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.1999-JUN-7

At the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering has taken steps to introduce curriculum that enable engineering graduates to be able to function on multidisciplinary teams. The institute provide tools and support necessary for its graduates not only to function, but also to contribute more effectively in multidisciplinary efforts. One support mechanism that is helping to broaden students' experience and skills at Georgia Tech is the Mechanical Engineering Electronics Support Lab. Currently, three long-range design projects are in the lab: an eight-channel programmable H2O pump for use in human bone growth experiments; a 12-channel high-voltage controller for piezoelectric actuators to manipulate fluidic flow patterns within a wind tunnel; and, for the same experiment, a precision bank of hot-wire anemometers for velocity measurements. The lab's greatest measure of success has been the high rate of return customers and word-of-mouth recommendations. Faculty from other departments have approached the lab regarding their design and fabrication needs—a strong indicator that the facility must be doing something right.

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO an automotive transmission was pretty much a pure mechanical device connected with, and controlled by, other mechanical devices. Today, however, electronic sensors, electrical actuators, and quite possibly a microprocessor are all standard invaders of this once exclusively mechanical domain.

Today's successful mechanical engineer must be able to design outside the traditional mechanical arena. The most effective (and highly sought after) mechanical engineering graduates are aware of these demands. Their skills include a variety of "outrigger technologies," including electronics, which allow them to be more productive.

ABET 2000, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology's new requirements, calls for engineering graduates to be able to "function on multidisciplinary teams."

At the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering has taken steps to meet this objective by providing the tools and support necessary for its graduates not only to function, but also to contribute more effectively in multidisciplinary efforts. One support mechanism that is helping to broaden students' experience and skills at Georgia Tech is the Mechanical Engineering Electronics Support Lab.

One support mechanism that is helping to broaden students' experience and skills at Georgia Tech is the Mechanical Engineering Electronics Support Lab.

Originally created to fill a need for instrument repair and maintenance, the lab 's responsibilities have expanded over the years in conjunction with the changing educational and research needs of the school. Today the lab's primary mission is as a one-stop electronic design and resource center. The staff includes two full-time electrical engineers, a full-time technician, four fulltime electrical engineering co-op students, and two part-time engineering graduate and undergraduate student interns.

The Woodruff School's lab is prominently positioned on the main floor directly across from two undergraduate and graduate design labs and adjacent to the main flow of student traffic. It contains six well-equipped design benches, a mechanical fabrication and assembly area, a PCB milling machine, an SMT reflow oven, two state-of the- art CAD workstations, and an impressive stock and wide variety of components. Adjoining the lab is an office area and extensive reference library.

The lab's support mission statement, "To provide a quality learning environment," is extremely (and intentionally) broad and open-ended, so much so that it provides few practical clues to the actual day-to-day operations of the lab.

Each day commonly includes visits by two or three undergraduates, three or four graduates, and one or more faculty.

These are normally short visits, on the order of five minutes or less, and generally involve quick design advice or help in locating other resources.

When the visit is more complicated, as when a student walks in with a handful of wires emanating from a breadboard, a fully equipped bench is usually available. One member of the staff can then give some quick troubleshooting tips , review a design , or just cast a watchful eye as the student assembles or debugs circuitry between classes. To hasten the students' accomplishments, staffers try hard to maintain a full stock of common replacement components for projects from which the smoke genie just escaped (so students don't have to resort to a drive across town).

During these in-and-out visits, there are larger projects in the background. They are always queued according to research deadlines and can take months to complete. Typical electronic designs include specialized experimental setups, custom piezoelectric driver arrays, multichannel high-voltage amplifiers, unique sensor designs, implantable biomedical prototypes, and atypical data-acquisition systems, as well as modifications to Commercially available instrumentation and sponsor-provided factory machinery located around campus.

Currently, three long-range design projects are in the lab: an eight-channel programmable H20 pump for use in human bone growth experiments; a 12-channel high-voltage controller for piezoelectric actuators to manipulate fluidic flow patterns within a wind tunnel; and, for the same experiment, a precision bank of hot-wire anemometers for velocity measurements.

An eight-channel saline pump for an incubator was developed at the request of a Georgia Tech bioengineering student in support of his research.

Grahic Jump LocationAn eight-channel saline pump for an incubator was developed at the request of a Georgia Tech bioengineering student in support of his research.

Any stereotypical definition of an electronics project does not hold at the lab. The talent within the lab is capable of more than simple cookbook solutions. For example, the lab recently engaged in the design of a precision variable frequency noncavitating high-pressure saline pump at the request of a bioengineering student in support of his research.

The lab reviewed the requirements, evaluated the options, and designed a closed-loop voice-coll driven actuator. That's not an undoable task for a well-staffed electrical engineering lab, but the staff also did the complete mechanical design, CAD drawings, biomedically compatible pump design, hydraulic valving, acoustic enclosure, and all assembly and device construction-in addition to meeting the off-site installation and operator training requirements.

The electronics support lab at Georgia Tech's Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering was created to maintain instruments, but has taken on a wider and more varied role.

Grahic Jump LocationThe electronics support lab at Georgia Tech's Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering was created to maintain instruments, but has taken on a wider and more varied role.

Turnkey solutions such as this compose about 30 percent of the lab 's workload. As a general rule, the students who will eventually use the instruments work with the lab staff and become intimately involved in the design and construction of a device. If students don't possess the required machine-shop background or electronic abilities, lab staffers take time to walk them through the procedure.

A student who leaves a university with this type of hands-on experience possesses a greater understanding of what a successful project requires, and has a workable insight into the product development process. These are intangible but valuable assets, which are difficult •to assimilate when they are taught from a textbook or class discussion alone.

Although its primary mission is not instructional, the lab is finding itself more and more involved in direct classroom. support. Whether it be in explaining an electronic concept to a class, giving a practical electronics lecture to a mechatronics lab, assisting students with their design homework, developing classroom instrumentation, or assisting with the creation of a new undergraduate design lab, a well-qualified electronics support lab can be an indispensable part of an interdisciplinary engineering education.

Georgia Tech's la b makes electronics support services available under one roof, where they are easily accessible and generally free of charge (except for parts) to both students and faculty. An oft en overlooked benefit of the one-roof concept is that lab staff can take over some or all of the project management duties that put demands on faculty time, and so the lab frees up teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibilities.

The lab's greatest measure of success has been the high rate of return customers and word-of-mouth recommendations. Recently, to lab officials' pleasant surprise, faculty from other departments (which have their own labs) have approached the lab regarding their design and fabrication needs-a strong indicator that the facility must be doing something right.

Recruitment and staff development at the lab differ, perhaps widely, from practices in the commercial sector. Hiring accomplished engineers can be difficult at academic pay scales, but there are compensating attractions in university work. Many engineers recognize and relish the opportunity found in a heterogeneous environment, a place to use all their skills and enjoy the far-reaching technical challenges provided by an academic atmosphere.

Real-world employers simply cannot offer the diverse design challenges or demand the continued life-long educational requirements that are needed here. Rigid specialization and stockholder expectations prohibit them from trying to design everything for everyone. While this is not the lab's aspiration either, its aim is still light-years removed in breadth when compared to the archetypal industry electrical engineering slot.

Built for a graduate student, a prototype hydraulic pump tests the practicality of generating high pressure by using a 12-inch stack of 3/4-inch-diameter piezoelectric crystals.

Grahic Jump LocationBuilt for a graduate student, a prototype hydraulic pump tests the practicality of generating high pressure by using a 12-inch stack of 3/4-inch-diameter piezoelectric crystals.

A continual challenge is to remain technically competent in a bro ad spectrum of technologies that seem only to broaden every time a new research idea surfaces, or a new class is formed. To be truly supportive, the staff has to remain on the cutting edge of change. The lab makes time and money available for continued education so that staff can stay current with developments in the field.

From this model of a support lab handling a wide variety of projects, it may also be possible to see the needs and benefits of broadening the traditional confines of electrical engineering. While the field of electrical engineering has clung to its well-defined boundaries, mechanical engineering has adopted a more elastic approach that adjusts as technology evolves . The diversity of projects entering this lab is proof of that adjustment.

Breakthroughs in research often depend on diverse knowledge. Perhaps when electrical engineers begin to contribute more to a general discussion on machine lubrication requirements-as many mechanical engineers regularly contribute to discussions on the applications of PIDs, MEMS, microcontrollers, and PLCs lab officials will be able to see more revolutionary breakthroughs.

Copyright © 1999 by ASME
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