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Focus on the Workforce: Programming Creativity at Missouri Southern

Elke Howe  






By Elke Howe
Department Head
Engineering Technology
Missouri Southern State University
Joplin, MO

When a university instructor comes up with a way of encouraging her technology-bent students to learn machine tool programming with creative classroom projects, it’s worth talking about. And, when those projects are also tied to the educational benefits of an internationally recognized organization’s student chapter, the conversation reveals a whole new level of opportunity.

At Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Assistant Professor Claudia Murphy has brought a lot to the table for her Industrial Engineering Technology students. Holding a master’s degree in Physics from Pittsburg State University, KS, and a bachelor’s degree in Non-Ferrous Metallurgy from Freiberg University of Mining and Technology, Germany, Murphy has worked in various areas of manufacturing as a metallurgist and process engineer, most recently with industrial bearings leader, FAG, Schaeffler Group (Fort Mill, SC; Schweinfurt, Germany). Knowing what will be required of her students after they enter the job market has given her a special insight regarding the skills she must concentrate on in the classroom.

Founded in 1937, the university has an enrollment approaching 6000, with 110 students aimed at associate or bachelor degrees in engineering technology. In 2008, when Murphy arrived at MSSU, she saw that students who had completed their manual machining program began learning how to hand-code the G and M codes for CNC machining. After attending a Haas conference at which Mastercam (CNC Software Inc.; Tolland, CT) presented its CAD/CAM systems for automated machining, she realized that this state-of-the-art technology was the way to go to prepare her students for the future.

Murphy and students Chris Salmon, Allen Tripp and Aaron Carlsen study a toolpath program in the Mastercam lab.

Starting with a computer and program borrowed from another teacher, Murphy began learning the Mastercam software herself, using automated codes to program various toolpaths. Pretty soon, she had a system for her own class and has “grown” the technology to include 10 computers loaded with Mastercam software for her students. These students would be creating a “capstone” manufacturing project that would count as a major portion of their grade.

“I knew right away that we had a great opportunity to tie the capstone project in with a fundraising program to be run by our SME student chapter,” said Murphy, herself a longtime SME member. The chapter had been dormant for several years, but Murphy thought this creative program would be a great way to energize the students and reactivate the Chapter. 

“I assigned teams of three or four students to come up with a project that could be sold to our student body or to the school’s bookstore,” she said. “Part of the project was to conduct cost analyses for development and production. I wanted them to design something that could make enough profit to provide funds for the student chapter’s activities.”

The first design to bear fruit was a drink coaster machined from 1/4" (6.4-mm) thick aluminum stock. After the design was completed in Autodesk Inventor, it was imported in 3D into Mastercam’s X7 software and the toolpaths generated for machining the drink pocket, the letters MSSU in the four corners, and a very detailed lion mascot logo in the center.

“I like the X7 software because it is very easy for me to teach and for the students to learn,” said Murphy. “They can prove their program in simulation and then optimize the program to shorten production time. I look for each piece to be completed on the CNC machines in less than 15 minutes. We have 20 students now in the chapter who have completed their CNC machining training. They use their free time on Saturdays to machine the items for fundraising events. That’s why the cost analysis part of the project is so important. We have two Haas CNC machining centers and a Haas CNC turning center in our department.”

To date, the students have sold over 120 coasters at $8 each and are now starting to bundle them into gift sets of four in response to popular demand.

The capstone program has evolved to a point where design teams present their projects for consideration in competition with each other, and students vote for the winning project through Facebook. Material costs, tooling requirements, production times and profitability are considered, in addition to design creativity.

The second design produced was a light switch plate in the shape of a lion’s head. Inside the lion’s features were machined and a pocket milled for the switch. Two holes were drilled for the fastening screws.
MSSU aluminum logo affixed to a shot glass.
“Last year,” she said, “one of the teams designed a small square, machined out of aluminum, with a lion head and MSSU engraved on it. It is affixed to a shot glass that we were able to purchase inexpensively in quantity.” So far, 35 have been sold to the bookstore for $8.99 apiece. In addition, the idea was expanded by drilling a quantity of the lion head/MSSU squares with a small hole in a corner for a key chain. These and the other capstone projects are displayed in MSSU’s Ummel Technology Building with signs saying they are designed and manufactured in the university’s Industrial Engineering Technology department. “This has generated quite a bit of interest among the student body for our program,” she said.

Last year’s second team designed a 3" (76-mm) long key chain comprised of the connected letters MSSU to be machined out of 1/8" (3.18-mm) aluminum stock with continuous path interpolation and precise pocketing. “A lip was included in the inside of the ‘U’ to form a bottle cap opener,” said Murphy, “making it a multipurpose pocket item and a big winner amongst our students.”

The winning projects are meant to have long lives, well beyond each semester’s program. “Remember, these students are going to graduate, and we need all this information in order for each year’s student chapter to keep producing the items well into the future—as long as there is demand,” Murphy said.

Murphy, her department and the SME student chapter are earning quite a bit of recognition with the sale of the products. “This summer,” she said, “we presented our capstone projects at an exhibit in the Joplin Art-Walk along with a sign proclaiming ‘Made by Students in the Industrial Engineering Technology Program at MSSU.’ The exhibit was billed as Metal Art and generated a lot of interest in the program.”

After paying for the materials for the parts, quite a bit of profit is left to benefit of the student chapter. “Once a month, on a Friday, I take the student chapter on a short trip to an interesting manufacturing facility,” says Murphy. “There are longer trips, too. ... Last year we used the generated funds to travel to Kansas City to visit the Boulevard Brewery and GM’s Fairfax facility, ranked as one of the most efficient auto manufacturing plants in North America.”

Murphy’s program at MSSU continues to grow and influence students. On her wish list is the addition of a CNC mill with a high-speed spindle. Combined with the specialized toolpaths of Mastercam Art, she believes the ability to quickly machine jewelry items within a Metal Art program will attract more women to Industrial Engineering Technology. ME


This article was first published in the April 2014 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  Click here for PDF

Published Date : 4/1/2014

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