UT Engineering Students Design Solutions for Tennessee Manufacturer

KNOXVILLE — With help from the University of Tennessee’s Center for Industrial Services and students from the UT Knoxville College of Engineering, a Tennessee tool manufacturer can help its clients make products faster.

Accu-Router Inc. of Morrison employs 25 people and makes high-speed, computer numerical control (CNC) routers that cut everything from plywood to composite materials. Accu-Router’s clients use these routers to mass-produce parts for products such as upholstered furniture, boats and airplanes.

As with any manufacturing process, time is money, and efficiency is top priority. The faster and more accurate the routers can cut, the more products can be produced.

A unique feature of Accu-Router’s machines is a high-speed spindle that rotates a cutter at speeds up to 24,000 rpm. The cutter can move through a 1.5-inch-thick wood stack at about 2 feet per second. In doing so, the cutter generates a lot of wood chips and dust, about 18 cubic inches of sawdust per second. Accu-Router wants to continuously remove this debris from the router to ensure a cleaner work environment, to eliminate the risk of frictional heat and flammability of the wood chips, and to improve cutting efficiency.

“The quicker we can get the dust out, the faster we can cut,” said Accu-Router President Todd Herzog.

When Accu-Router realized the need for a redesign of some equipment components, Mechanical Design Supervisor Bradley Graves and Director of Engineering John O’Connor turned to UT Center for Industrial Services (CIS) for help.

Bill Wiley and Norma Wilcox of CIS worked with Spivey Douglas and Bill Hamel, head of Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering in UT’s College of Engineering (COE), to clarify Accu-Route’s needs and to determine available resources. Their analysis and search led to COE’s Don Dareing, professor of mechanical engineering.

After visiting Accu-Router, Dareing assigned nine senior engineering students to analyze the router’s dust chip collection, router enclosure and tabletop vacuum, and to propose design improvements for each component. Students studying the router enclosure were Steven Bain, Jack Holder, Joakim Werme and Jeremy Whitley. The dust chip collection team consisted of Frank Lord, Josh Mink and Shaan Mohammed, while Jason Coggins and Rahul Patel studied the efficiency of the tabletop vacuum.

Instead of creating a hypothetical, textbook problem for the seniors’ capstone design projects, Dareing gave the students Accu-Router’s actual problems that needed a time-saving, production-boosting solution.

“It’s important that our seniors have exposure to real engineering problems and learn how to apply the analytical skills they’ve learned in the classroom before entering the professional environment. The situations posed by Accu-Router give our students the opportunity to develop engineering solutions to real industrial problems,” Dareing said.

During the Fall 2007 semester, the student teams examined the current Accu-Router equipment and studied factors such as air velocities, ventilation and static charges. They found answers to questions such as “Which air flow and design will vacuum and remove the most wood waste?” and “Which materials are most durable for the enclosure and can withstand the force of flying wood blocks?” With a new design strategy, wood chips could be removed from the cutter area at an air velocity near 650 mph.

Halfway through the semester, the students presented viable design options to Accu-Router. The company was thrilled with the quality of the concepts.

“We have worked with senior project teams from other universities, as well as with summer mechanical engineering interns, and rarely have we seen the first wave of feedback as insightful as what we received from your teams,” said O’Connor. “I don’t recall any of the projects we have done in the past where the students covered the entire project, from understanding the initial problem to be solved through how it would be manufactured and implemented, while considering cost and maintainability.”

In December, the students met again with Accu-Router, which accepted the students’ design proposals and agreed to move forward with building prototypes of the redesigned equipment components. Some sheet metal fabrication will be completed at UT, and Accu-Router will pay for all costs associated with building the prototypes.

“It’s a tremendous benefit for these students to see their design become reality and to work with a manufacturer,” Dareing said. “When students get this kind of hands-on experience, they are better prepared for their careers in practical engineering.”

“Our seniors are eager to make the transition from a classroom setting to the real engineering environment. Perhaps the biggest improvement in engineering education nationwide is the senior capstone design project requirement. The objective is to prepare seniors to make a quick transition into industry after graduation. Real projects from industry are ideal for this purpose,” Dareing said.

“In our program at Tennessee, students create designs during the fall semester, and prototypes are fabricated and tested during the spring semester. In the end, student teams deliver an engineering report and a working prototype. The project concludes with formal presentations to the sponsor. Our engineering students graduate with the confidence that they know how to solve problems.”

CIS has taken the resources of UT and other Tennessee Board of Regents schools to Tennessee manufacturers and businesses since 1963.

“While we tend to use engineering resources, we have requests for other types of expertise. This is an opportunity for faculty and students to apply their research to real-life problems,” Wiley said.

Wiley is program manager of the Manufacturing Research and Development Institute (MRDI), a partnership between UT CIS and the COE. Through MRDI, faculty, students and advanced research centers help manufacturers tackle a variety of complex engineering problems, giving MRDI clients access to affordable university expertise.

While UT CIS does not compete with private industry on such projects, similar research activities typically cost thousands of dollars. In 2007, UT CIS partially funded and completed 50 projects with faculty and students. The economic impact of these projects from January-September 2007 exceeded $48 million, according to reports from Tennessee manufacturers.

UT CIS is an agency of the statewide UT Institute for Public Service.

“The Accu-Router project is a good example of applying university expertise to benefit Tennessee manufacturers. With research and student and faculty input, Accu-Router will improve its product design and effectively help customers cut wood faster and deliver consumer products in less time,” said Mary Jinks, IPS associate vice president.


Contacts:

Queena Jones, (865) 974-1533, queena.jones@tennessee.edu