Building Prototypes and Societal Engineers

Imagineering Lab Use Grows Dramatically

By Mark Dwortzan

Pooja Shah (BME'14) and other Engineers Without Borders team members are using the Imagineering Lab to build prototypes of antenna systems that could be used to boost cell phone reception in rural parts of Zambia, so healthcare workers in central labs can dispatch infant HIV test results via text messaging to rural clinics.
Pooja Shah (BME'14) and other Engineers Without Borders team members are using the Imagineering Lab to build prototypes of antenna systems that could be used to boost cell phone reception in rural parts of Zambia, so healthcare workers in central labs can dispatch infant HIV test results via text messaging to rural clinics.

Alessandro Gomes (ME'16) spent three months in the Imagineering Lab developing a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controller, a board with 25 arcade buttons that send MIDI signals to interact with music software on a computer, and then demonstrated how it works on April 16 in the College of Engineering's 2013 Imagineering Competition.
Alessandro Gomes (ME'16) spent three months in the Imagineering Lab developing a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controller, a board with 25 arcade buttons that send MIDI signals to interact with music software on a computer, and then demonstrated how it works on April 16 in the College of Engineering's 2013 Imagineering Competition.

In the beginning, the new Singh Imagineering Lab gleamed like a brand new car in a showroom, its many features not yet road tested but full of promise. Just before its October, 2011 grand opening, the 1,343-square-foot lab’s fixed and mobile workbenches stood empty; its drill press, band saw, and soldering stations silent; its hammers, power drills, and building materials untouched. That fall, as the first equipment training sessions got underway, activity was sporadic, but since then usage of the Imagineering Lab has grown dramatically.

Based on computer sign-in data in place since February, 2012, the lab, which can accommodate up to 40 people at a time, was used at least 617 times by 193 different people in the past year.

"There’s been a remarkable increase in traffic this year compared to last year,” said David A. Harris (ME’15). “There are times when you walk by and every machine is in use.”

Envisioned by Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen as a place where College of Engineering students could develop a passion for entrepreneurship and innovation—and as a “sandbox” for engineering experimentation—the Imagineering Lab provides the tools, machinery and building materials for undergraduates who wish to pursue their own extracurricular ideas and designs. Projects have ranged from the whimsical, such as an electric go-cart, to those seeking to move society forward in some way, such as a mini-wind turbine that powers small appliances.


Imagineering Just for Fun

For Tucker Strzempko (ME’14), the Imagineering Lab has served as a high tech sandbox where he could apply his engineering skills to creating his own version of an outdoor game called cornhole.

“Cornhole is a recreational game much like horseshoes, but the objective is to get a beanbag in a hole on a board rather than a horseshoe around a post,” said Strzempko, who used a jigsaw, power drill and screws in the lab to make cornhole boards. “The boards have a hole near the top and are tilted so that beanbags may be tossed at them to try to get them inside.”

Alessandro Gomes (ME’16) has spent the past three months in the Imagineering Lab developing a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controller, a board with 25 arcade buttons that send MIDI signals to interact with music software on a computer, similar to a drum machine or an e-keyboard.

“This allows users to control a variety of sounds, effects and any other features present in the software,” said Gomes. “Normally something similar to what I have built would cost upwards of $200, whereas all I had to buy were the arcade buttons (totaling $30) to build my own.”

All other materials and tools were provided by the Imagineering Lab, with the exception of a microcontroller, which was ordered for Gomes through the lab’s parts request form.

“The top of the controller is a sheet of aluminum that I drilled through using the drill press,” Gomes added. “The corner pieces are milled aluminum tubing and the rest of the body is acrylic, which I cut using the band saw.”


Imagineering a Better World

While the Imagineering Lab has enabled College of Engineering students to flex their engineering muscles on small-scale projects, it has also served as a platform for innovative ideas that may well enter the marketplace and change the world.

For example, Pooja Shah (BME’14) and other team members on the Engineers Without Borders Cell Phone Signal Amplification Project are using the lab to build prototypes of antenna systems that could be used to boost cell phone reception in rural parts of Zambia, so healthcare workers in central labs can expedite the return of infant HIV test results via text messaging.

“Text messaging test results allows for a much faster turnaround time between a mother getting her baby tested, receiving the results and getting her child the proper treatment,” said Shah, who estimated that the project could impact up to 23,000 people. “It is important that our project is sustainable and easily reconstructed in Zambia, so we've been working with some basic hand tools (hammer, saw, pliers) and the soldering iron, which are all available in the lab.”  

Zachary Herbert and Ian Cohen (both ME’14) are advancing a method to produce arrays of microneedles—very small needles typically used for drug delivery—that could be used to make diagnostic blood testing painless and dramatically reduce waiting room times.

With that goal in mind, Herbert and Cohen are developing a larger-scale model of a microneedle array using injection molding, a manufacturing process for making parts by injecting material into a mold. To build that model, they’re creating an injection molding system using the resources of the Imagineering lab, and machining molds for the array. Their long-term goal is to create real microneedles .

“We found no one’s using microneedles for diagnostics and no one’s even commercialized the technology yet,” said Herbert. “We want to start a company, MicroDiagnostics, and make these needles using a process called microinjection molding.”

Whether for pure entertainment, to boost our quality of life, or both, Imagineering Lab projects are helping College of Engineering undergraduates not only to construct prototypes of tomorrow’s technology, but also to build their own capabilities as Societal Engineers.


Imagineering Lab programming is supported by the Kern Family Foundation and alumni contributions to the ENG Annual Fund.

 

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