NCMEP Grant Supports Small Business Senior Design Projects

Friday, February 12, 2021

With support from a grant from the North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NCMEP), UNC Charlotte is extending its very successful Senior Design program to smaller North Carolina companies, allowing them the chance to do specialized research projects and providing students with the learning experience of working with smaller companies.

As part of the W.S. Lee College of Engineering’s Industrial Solutions Laboratory (ISL), the Senior Design program engages student teams in interdisciplinary two-semester design projects. The program typically has about 100 projects per semester, 70 of them industry sponsored. The cost of the real-world industry supported projects is $8,000 per project. With $80,000 in grant money from NCMEP, the program is now reducing costs to $3,000 for selected smaller manufacturing companies.

The North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NCMEP) provides manufacturing extension services that enhance the productivity, innovative capacity, and improve the technological performance of North Carolina-based manufacturing firms. The UNC Charlotte Industrial Solutions Lab is one of the nine partners that work with NCMEP.

“Prior to involvement NCMEP, the majority of our projects came from larger companies,” said ISL Director Jim Hartman. “These projects are great, and we appreciate the support of our many industry partners. Still, we wanted to be able to give some of our students the experience of working with smaller manufacturing and engineering companies. With NCMEP now subsidizing costs, we can reach out to more companies who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford our projects. It also allows us to increase the diversity of the program by fostering participation from minority-owned companies, which is exciting.”

Phil Mintz is the director of NCMEP, and the executive director of NC State’s Industry Expansion Solutions (IES) program. “When I first met Jim (Hartman), he told me about the very impressive Senior Design program at UNC Charlotte,” Mintz said, “and one of his goals was to make it more accessible to smaller companies. I saw this as a good fit for our smaller NC manufacturing technical assistance program.”

Since the mid-1990s, NCMEP has administered the state manufacturing assistance program, which is an affiliate of the MEP National Network, providing technical solutions in support of profitable growth in small- and mid-sized North Carolina manufacturers. For 2020 and 2021, NCMEP made two awards totaling $80,000 to UNC Charlotte. The grant money can be used to support program infrastructure and specific costs related to Senior Design projects for NC manufacturing companies that employ fewer than 250 people at their site.

“One of our purposes is to help smaller companies innovate,” Mintz said. “The UNC Charlotte Senior Design program does that by allowing students to work on research projects that might not otherwise get done. So, this is an excellent fit for us both. We’re very pleased to have them as part of our program and look forward to seeing more good results in the future.”

(In a recent NCMEP podcast, Mintz and Hartman discuss the relationship between NCMEP and the UNC Charlotte Senior Design program. You can listen to the podcast here: https://www.ncmep.org/e-17-uncc-industrial-solutions-lab/)

Examples of the types of manufacturing projects done by UNC Charlotte engineering seniors for NCMEP-supported companies include new or modified product designs, fixtures to improve manufacturing productivity and safety, material handling systems, automation of testing operations, sensor usage for manufacturing feedback and design improvements in production equipment. There are currently several projects underway.

The first grant-supported project to be completed was the “Kenny Seat” project, which ended in December 2020. The small manufacturer involved was Kenny’s Components, which does design, engineering and production of custom fabrication and advanced composite materials such as carbon fiber work for race cars.

“It was a good fit for our program, because it was motorsports related,” Hartman said. “UNC Charlotte has a concentration program in motorsports, and we really like to see projects that fit in with our focus areas. Kenny’s is also a small business, so it was an excellent project for this grant.”

The objective of the project was to design a safer mounting system for Sprint Car driver seats. The idea for the project came about after a driver sustained a serious spinal injury during a Sprint car wreck in which G forces were estimated at 20 G’s.

The Senior Design team of Adam St. Laurent, Andrew Blankenship, Michael Miller and Bruce Hall took on the challenge of reducing G forces on the 90-degree mounted seat down to 15-17 G’s. Using a seat supplied by Kenny’s, the team built the chassis frame and the interface mounts. They then designed two polyurethane springs to the side of the seat and four mounted to the back, which together acted as a spring and damper system.

The team devised a test setup consisting of a quick release from a forklift, and high-speed cameras and accelerometers to record visual and numerical data. Test results showed that the seat with the spring system always had significantly less G pressure than the chassis.

“The team actually accomplished a whole lot,” said their project mentor, Mechanical Engineering Professor Peter Tkacik. “They were able to reduce G forces from 20 to 14. As students interested in racing, the project was a great opportunity for them. Small companies making specialized components are very much the norm in racing, so getting to work with a company like Kenny’s was a great experience.”

The Kenny Seat team narrates their final project poster. 

The Kenny Seat team’s Senior Design Expo video.

The UNC Charlotte Industrial Solutions Laboratory is currently adding projects for the fall 2021 semester. If you are a small- or medium-sized manufacturing company interested in doing a NCMEP-supported engineering Senior Design project with UNC Charlotte, please contact the ISL Director Jim Hartman at jim.hartman@uncc.edu.