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Engineers do it with precision!

Young researchers show off local inventions and technical experimentation at UWI Mechanical Engineering Open Day
Published: 
Thursday, June 8, 2017
Chantal Charles demonstrates her human-operated washing machine.

It’s a bike; no, it’s a washing machine; no, it’s a way to save money on your energy bill.

Actually, it’s all three. The human-powered washing machine assembled by Chantal Charles doesn’t even require you to wreck your bicycle; just remove the back wheel whenever you need to wash clothes, while having a convenient workout at the same time.

Gamely demonstrating her machine for me, Charles, a final year Mechanical Engineering UWI student, mounted a sturdy bicycle which was hooked up to a drum.

When she cycled, the energy from her pedalling spun the drum: and voilà—a totally off-the-grid device that can save you money and clean your clothes, while helping you stave off the dangers of diabetes.

People can even change gears to adjust speeds for different cycles—wash (slow), spin (faster) or dry (fastest).

The demonstration was part of the recent conference and exhibition held by the University of the West Indies’ (UWI’s) Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering on Thursday, May 25 at its St Augustine, Trinidad campus. With the theme “Engineering for Diversification”, on display were many interesting projects showing off local engineering and manufacturing experimentation, from a coconut juicing machine to a locally made artificial robotic finger, to MIC student ideas for a photovoltaic irrigation system which may help make agriculture more sustainable.

Professor Kit Fai Pun, UWI professor of industrial engineering who helped organise the exhibition, told the Guardian: “We would like to showcase both our undergrad and our postgrad work.

“Every year we have over 100 final year projects—some are in research, some are industry-based, and some are lab oriented—to help foster T&T’s economic diversification. Many of the postgrad projects are company sponsored.”

Friendly students explained some of their project work in short interviews with the Guardian on the day.

Shivan Ramnarace has been busy helping to develop an artificial finger using shape memory alloys. Ramnarace is a final year BSc Mechanical Engineering student specialising in design and applied mechanics. Standing by a made-in-T&T prototype of an artificial hand with thin wires stretched like guitar strings up to a large raised index finger, Ramnarace explained the project idea came from his supervisor’s PhD student, whose thesis involved shape memory alloy, and who found some unexpected applications for it.

“Shape memory alloy is a smart material—smart materials are said to react to the environment by themselves. So in this application, when the alloy is deformed at a low temperature, it remains in that shape even when you take away the load…after you heat it above a specific temperature, it actually goes back to its original shape.

“That’s what we’ve implemented into the hand. So the alloy is in the form of wires stretched out, and connected to the joints of the artificial finger.

“The wire is made of nickel and titanium. So when you hook up an electrical circuit, connected to a battery, this causes the material to heat … it’s a temperature manipulation game. When it heats above a particular temperature, it contracts the original shape, pulling on the finger joints, enabling movement.”

Ramnarace confesses he was inspired to make the finger from memories of seeing the Marvel Comics character James “Bucky” Barnes as Winter Soldier, with a cybernetic prosthetic arm which can discharge bolts of electrical energy from its palm.

Laughing, Ramnarace says although the inspiration may be childish, the potential applications may one day help amputees if the idea is developed— right now the research is in its infancy; the hand can only hold a 500ml water bottle.

He says conventional prosthetic hands used motors and were therefore very heavy. The advantage of using shape memory alloy is that you can get a similar performance but with a much lighter hand, he says, which means that one day, with further research, more aesthetically appealing hands could be made.

Another interesting project is by postgrad student Fahraz Ali, who is exploring applications of 3D printing.

His project display includes white plastic models of human bones, a model racing car, clutch shoes, a lawnmower blade, and a fascinating 3D skull segment which suggests the wide number of things you can use 3D printing for—from prototype mechanical parts for industry to making toys, medical models, prosthetics prototypes, or even costume jewelry or pieces of Carnival costumes.

It has interesting potential for both manufacturing industries and crafts, and is a burgeoning global industry.

Ali works in a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) lab with access to 3D printing machines which help with design and manufacture.

“We focus more on product design and development, as well as computer-aided design and manufacture,” he said.

“My thesis is on 3D printing, looking at optimisation of the parameters—eg how to get 3D printed objects made of thermoplastics to be stronger. The size of objects is determined by the size of the printing bed.”

He says that depending on the type of 3D printer, you can use plastics or metals, and you can also fibre-reinforce objects.

In another part of the JFK hall, several machines for processing agricultural produce were on display, including a bulk orange peeler; a cocoa pod splitter; a cocoa seed separator; and an air-powered pneumatic contraption for juicing a coconut at one end and then splitting the hard shell into pieces at the other, to let you extract the jelly.

And how about a machine that grates your coconut “bread” for you? That’s what young Rick Rambaran, an undergrad student from Rio Claro, has made.

He said: “I actually saw a bigger one like this in Mayaro… My own has a power screw to drive down the coconut against a rotating drum with a grating surface.

“I built the structure in the woodwork shop, and punched the holes in the rotating grater drum with a nail and a hammer.

“The machine costs about $1,000, if doing it manually; more, if you attach a motor (a motor can cost $5,000).”

So the machine can be ideal for coconut processing small businesses.

Other projects included optimisation of a biofuel-operated generator (Jevin Paul); collapsible crutches (Anjali Sankar); a mechanical fish scaler (Justin Metivier); a photovoltaic system design to turn solar energy into electrical energy (Christopher Jimenez); and an environmental sensor for the visually impaired (by Kiran Jagasar: think of it as a high tech walking cane that can identify objects in your path and give you feedback as you walk). There was even a photovoltaic cellphone charger—ideal for hikers. And designs for a user-friendly, affordable automated outdoor drip irrigation system made of PVC pipe (with a digital schedule timer) promised to make things much easier for farmers—very cost effective, and requiring no manual adjustments, according to its designer Amelia Sookhansingh.

The Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering exhibition suggested to me that while space may indeed be the final frontier (at least in the Star Trek universe), perhaps we need to explore frontiers much closer to home—like our own scientific creativity applied to practical manufacturing ideas—to make life a bit easier, and more profitable for ourselves. Which is exactly what these students are doing.

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