Engineering Wonders

More than 2 million Americans take medication for chronic illnesses. All too often, the drugs are taken incorrectly, leading to complications including death.

To address that problem, eight RIT engineering students spent winter and spring quarters developing the Automated Home Medication Dispenser. Their prototype device dispenses the correct amount of up to a dozen different pills, while an Internet interface allows the patient's physician to monitor and modify the dosage.

A product based on their work may someday be on the market. Even if that never happens, the students succeeded. They gained experience of incalculable value.

They aren't alone: Some 120 electrical, industrial and mechanical engineering seniors tackled 21 projects in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering's inaugural multidisciplinary engineering design program.

Group projects have been required for seniors in all of the college's departments for some years, but forging teams from students in several disciplines is new. "We decided to take it to a new level," explains Dean Harvey Palmer, "to make it more like the industry experience. This represents a major advance in engineering education."

Among the projects developed:

  • Work cell redesign for Sentry Group of Rochester.
  • Device to separate marshmallow bits from cereal for testing of Lucky Charms cereal, developed for General Mills.
  • Robotic drummer, sponsored by RIT's electrical engineering department.
  • Portable blade-vibration monitor for Impact Technologies.
  • Non-lead airgun ammunition for Crosman Airguns.
  • Micro-inertial measurement system for Veridian Inc.

The program launched in 2002 with a course in project management offered in fall quarter. Students from that course became team leaders who, in the first week of winter quarter, presented their projects to prospective team members.

"Five days into the quarter, the teams have to be up and running," says Edward Hensel, professor and mechanical engineering department head. By the end of winter quarter, the team goes before a committee made up of faculty and industry representatives for a "very demanding, intense" one-hour design presentation. During spring quarter, they build a prototype. It's up to the team to develop concepts, divide up the workload, arrange meetings with sponsors, purchase supplies — whatever is necessary to get the job done on time and within the $1,500 budget. Each team created a Web site, a project poster, and gave formal presentations at a final conference. Many published technical papers.

"Every minute is utilized for the whole three quarters," says Hensel, the man Palmer calls "principal architect" of the program. "In 30 weeks, 21 products were developed. A lot of companies would give their left arms for that kind of productivity."

Karen Palumbo '03 (industrial and systems engineering), manager of the Lucky Charms team, faced a straight-forward task: invent a device for quickly separating the marshmallow bits from the cereal without damaging the product. For quality control purposes, General Mills tests a box of cereal twice per shift, and the Buffalo plant runs three shifts per day, seven days a week. In the past, workers have picked out the marshmallows by hand.

"We came up with 50 ideas," Palumbo says. Ultimately, they decided on a device made up of a hot plate, a press and a metal tray. The operator pours the sample on the tray, places the tray on the hot plate and briefly applies the press. The marshmallows stick to the heated tray and the cereal can be removed for further testing.

The experience was "an eye-opener," says Palumbo. "This was so different from other classes. You're on your own, you get a chance to be creative and try your own ideas."

Robert Kremens, a staff scientist at RIT's Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, proposed a buoy that could drift in a body of water and periodically transmit water temperatures. The student team that took on his project added a feature: They developed a system using compressed air and plumbing that allows the buoy to submerge periodically. The "submersible autonomous data collection and transmission system," a.k.a. SADCATS, successfully completed its maiden voyage in the RIT pool.

"These kids are great," says Kremens. "They're maniacs. They really stepped up to the plate and used their professional skills."

Team members took obvious pride in their accomplishment. "I heard 'automation' and I had to be part of it," says Saheer Patel '01 (industrial and systems engineering). "It was the coolest project."

But the workload was daunting. Team member Eric Olson '03 (mechanical engineering) figures he logged 50 hours a week toward the end of spring quarter. That's not atypical; Hensel estimates that over the course of the project, each student puts in an average of 10 hours per week.

"That totals a minimum of 24,000 man hours, or 12 man years, for the students' work," says Hensel.

The value to sponsoring organizations varies, Hensel acknowledges. "The value is directly proportional to what they put in." Projects that prove most successful for the students and the sponsors tend to share certain characteristics: They are well defined, technically challenging, multidisciplinary, and important to the sponsor but not urgent. Sponsors are expected to pay the costs and provide regular contact with the team.

More projects are needed; in the coming school year the program will expand to as many as 50 teams with up to 200 engineering students. Ultimately, Dean Palmer would like to include students from other colleges. (Representatives of companies interested in learning more about project sponsorship should contact Moises Sudit, director of business development and multidisciplinary programs for the college, at 585-475-2001, or by e-mail at

The team projects are "hugely valuable," says Robert O. Frasca '88 (mechanical engineering), a former Navy jet pilot, entrepreneur and Internet pioneer and now CEO and President of Affinnova Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., consulting company focused on product development issues. "We didn't have this when I was at RIT, but my MBA program had a team component. Anything that pulls all of the skills you've just learned and puts them to use is key. Entreprenuership is exactly like that," says Frasca, who was keynote speaker at the Kate Gleason College of Engineering commencement in May.

"The teamwork, the multidisciplinary approach is really important," says Terry Clapham '71 (electrical engineering), co-founder of VISX, the world's largest manufacturer of laser-based vision correction systems. "You have to think outside the box, learn organizational skills, and figure out how to motivate people to do what is needed for your project — those are important lessons. There are a lot of engineers out there, but few with good project skills. This type of program puts the RIT engineering students one step ahead."

Seniors may not fully realize the value of the project experience until sometime later. They're busy fulfilling their graduation requirements and preparing to launch a career. Out in the workplace, that's when the lessons will kick in, Hensel believes.

"This really begins the transition from student to professional engineer."

The University Magazine, Fall 2003