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Engineering for Outer Space

Students envision and create a not-of-this world compact manufacturing system

When it comes to home projects, Murphy’s Law tends to pop up often. How many trips to the hardware store did your last DIY home repair project require? Probably more than one. As annoying as all those trips are, we eventually end up with the right size, the right color, the right part. But what if the needed part isn’t just down the road? Could a system be designed to manufacture spare parts for people working in remote locations like on the International Space Station? That question was addressed by three Colorado Mesa University engineering students in a proof-of-concept project during the Spring 2021 semester. 

With funding from the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, CMU mechanical engineering technology students Steve Inman and Zak Winemiller, and CMU/CU Boulder mechanical engineering student Bennett Russell tackled that problem. 

Such a system would face considerable limitations. It would need to be reliable, low maintenance, simple to operate, compact and portable, and storage space for raw materials and working area would be limited in space. But that’s exactly the kind of problem Chris Penick, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and the project’s faculty advisor, wants students to learn to solve. 

“We push students to learn to be problem solvers, given real world constraints,” Penick said. “Working engineers will run into these same types of constraints.”

The students successfully integrated standalone components, including a 3D printer, computerized numerical control (CNC) milling/ manufacturing station, camera for a quality control check and robotic arm to move the part through the process. 

These are existing “tools” that don’t normally work together, explained Winemiller. “The components didn’t talk to each other. One even ran on higher voltage,” making communication between tools the most challenging part of the project.

The team’s compact manufacturing system is capable of making small plastic parts, but it could be adapted to use metal or other 3D raw material. Each component can also still be used independently. 

There are other integrated manufacturing systems in use, Winemiller said, “but not on the scale of ours. It’s a miniature version and breaks down for transport.” 

Their invention will first be used in the classroom as a demonstration model in Penick’s industrial controls course, as well as in Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Sarah Lanci’s advanced manufacturing class. 

“This project really highlights the integration of two different areas of engineering study,” Penick said, “which is like what happens in the real world.” And maybe someday soon, out of this world.


Written by Deborah Dawes