TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – A class of University of Alabama seniors used its engineering expertise to assist companies facing engineering-related problems.
As part of a mechanical engineering design course, multiple student teams frequently undertake industry-sponsored projects for companies like Uniroyal-Goodrich, Gulf States Paper Corporation and the Klumb Company. One team, for example, modified a conveyor belt system for the Klumb Company, a landscaping firm in Vance.
“It’s really been a bottleneck-type problem for my factory,” said Ted Hill, vice president of operations for Klumb Company. “I’ve tried a few solutions on my own, but they didn’t seem to work, and I was looking for advice from outside sources. Our company has some in-house maintenance, but we don’t have any of our own on-staff engineers.”
Allen Powers, the students’ instructor, said this assistance is an often-overlooked resource for the state’s manufacturing and industrial community.
“It is a tremendous opportunity for companies to get quality engineering services for a relatively small investment,” he said.
In return for the students help and the resources provided by the College’s engineering facilities, the participating industries pay a nominal project fee of $750, plus any direct costs of the project, such as purchase or construction of parts. Neither the students nor any faculty receive payment for their time and labor.
For smaller companies, there is also an opportunity to forego the project fee. The Center for Economic Development, in Montgomery, will pay the $750 for qualifying companies. Recently, the CED sponsored projects for both Klumb Company and Durbin-Durco in Reform.
The mechanical engineering students get additional, practical experience from the class.
“This course is preparing us for our careers,” said Blair Bunn, a member of the team that worked for Klumb. “It’s teaching us how to go through the process of solving a real world engineering problem step by step.”
Klumb’s conveyor belt system carries sealed bags of mulch to a storage bay. It was prone to jams that caused the entire assembly line to shut down.
The problems caused Klumb to lose money when bags were torn or fell off the belt during jams, and it also resulted in lost production time when workers shut down the system to clear the jams.
The student team spent eight to 10 hours per week at the factory working on the conveyor belt. After studying the current equipment to identify problem areas, the team designed and installed modification parts to make the system more efficient.
Hill said a low-cost solution was appealing to his company.
“I could have updated the equipment for $10,000-15,000, but I felt like we could utilize what we have and make it work.”
“Through this course, students realize that once you go to work, there’s more to being an engineer than just making calculations,” Powers said. “You can be the best engineer in the state, but you have to be able to communicate your ideas and get people on board with you,” he said.
“Considering that many of these seniors will graduate within days or weeks of finishing the project and will be accepting positions starting at approximately $42,000 a year, the company is getting a tremendous bargain for the students’ time,” said Powers. “If these companies were to go to a private consulting firm, they would probably end up paying five to ten times more.”
The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.