287704 Conduct Your Capstone Design Class As a Consulting Company

Tuesday, October 30, 2012: 9:55 AM
Shadyside (Omni )
Richard L. Zollars, Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, Washington State University, Pullman, WA

Capstone design classes are often taught in a similar manner – design a process (ammonia plant, methanol plant, etc.) to meet some production goal.  By selecting an appropriate plant the instructor can be insured of covering almost any unit operation to which the students have been exposed at some time during their education.  There are a number of shortcomings to such an approach, however.  One of these is that the details of such plants, which unit operations are used, in what order, etc., are readily available in the literature.  Students will repeat the standard design, go through a laborious series of calculations to size and cost equipment, perform an economic analysis and report their findings.  In terms of promoting any in-depth thinking, there is little to offer.  In addition, only a small fraction of students will ever be employed in such a situation.

A more common situation for students upon graduation is to be employed as a process or unit engineer.  As such, in addition to keeping their unit operating, they have the responsibility of upgrading or debottlenecking their operation.  This smaller scale, more focused, design work typically involves only a few unit operations.  While few in number the unit operations that are involved are highly variable depending upon the unit in which the engineer is employed. 

In an academic setting trying to operate a design class using this narrower focus is difficult without having the problems seem contrived.  Thus, eleven years ago, we began operating our capstone design class in a different manner.  The instructor for the capstone design class solicited regional industries for projects.  With this set of projects available the design class is then conducted like an engineering consulting firm with teams of students vying for various projects.  During the design process the students must keep in contact with their “clients” to insure that they are addressing the client’s concerns.  At the end the student groups must satisfy not only the class instructor, but also the industrial contact person who originally proposed the problem. 

The capstone design class at Washington State University is a two semester sequence of classes.  The fall semester course covers economic analysis, equipment sizing, safety and team work in addition to starting the design project.   The spring semester class is devoted exclusively to the design project.  In preparation for the academic year regional industries are contacted for proposed projects.  For a variety of reasons (cost, laboratory facilities, safety) the projects are to be paper studies, not requiring work in a laboratory or shop.  The projects should require approximately 500 person-hours to complete.  In addition to developing such a project the industry is expected to provide part of a person’s time to serve as the point of contact for the student design team as well as some financial remuneration to cover expenses for the project. 

During the fall semester the students select the group in which they want to work.  Ideally, each group is three people but no group will be larger than four people.  Once the groups are formed one-page descriptions of the projects that are available for the year are given to each group.   Each group then goes through a bidding process for the selection of the project on which they will work.  At the completion of this bidding/selection process each group will visit the industrial site to meet with their contact as well as get a fuller understanding of the project.  Prior to the end of the fall semester but after the initial site visit each group will conduct a brainstorming session to develop a slate of potential ideas for the solution of the problem they have been assigned. 

During the spring semester the students work exclusively on the design project.  They develop Gantt charts to help them monitor their progress.  These are updated formally three times during the semester.  They are expected to maintain regular communications with their industrial contact.  A second site visit about half way through the semester is conducted to insure that both the students and industry contact are in agreement with the direction of the project.  Final written reports are due after 12 weeks.  This is followed by a day of formal oral presentations the following week.  Because of the number of projects in any given semester the time for these presentations is short.  Thus we have gone to a poster/oral presentation format.  The student design groups participate in a poster session first followed by 20 to 25 minute oral presentations.  Finally, before the end of the semester, each group is to hand-in a final revised written report which will be sent to the industrial contact. 

To date a total of 58 different design projects have been conducted for 15 different industrial sponsors.  The industries have ranged from major corporations, to government labs, to state government agencies, to small companies (5 – 10 employees).  The range of topics is also quite broad with few projects covering similar processes.  There have been some very traditional chemical engineering projects (heat exchanger optimization, hydrogen recovery in a refinery, debutanizer optimization), some others that are still definitely chemical engineering in nature (active metal reduction of nitrates, oxidation of uranium using Fenton’s Reagent, purification of soy and palm oils, water treatment/recovery, and copper recovery) while a few others stretch the boundaries of the discipline (recycling of carbon fiber reinforced composites, recovery of neutraceuticals from fruit waste, and converting municipal and/or food waste into biofuels). 

As measured by student involvement conducting the design course in this manner has been a success.  Student evaluations of the course are uniformly high.  More than one alumnus has reported that their experience in the design course was the closest thing they had to actual practice than any other course in the curriculum.  The industries that have participated have also expressed their support.  Not only have they continued to provide projects, manpower and financial support but also have hired students as a result of the student’s work on a project supported by the industry. 

Another way to assess the success of conducting the design course in this manner is the quality of the work performed by the students.  The quality of the written reports has gone up, in part due to the fact that the reports are going to people who might be hiring the student.  The oral/poster presentations have been excellent.  More than one person from industry has commented that they meet or exceed the quality that they would expect from their engineers. 

The quality of the designs is also outstanding.  Approximately 20% of the student design suggestions have been implemented in some from by the company that supplied the project.  The quality of the student’s work was verified by a situation that occurred recently.  One of the companies offered a project for which they had already signed a contract with an engineering consulting firm.  They received both the professional firm’s report at about the same time as they received the student’s report.  While the student’s report lacked the detail of the professional report (types of welds, fasteners, support structures, etc.) the student design and the professional design contained almost identical unit operations, arranged in the same order, with equivalent material and energy balance calculations.

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