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Mechanical Engineering Class Focuses on Solutions for Real Needs

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Doctors working in a remote African town could soon have a better method for sterilizing instruments for surgery, thanks to four students from the University of Kansas School of Engineering.

The students wor
Medical Autoclave
ked on the project as part of a senior design course under the direction of Ron Dougherty, chair of the mechanical engineering department,

and Ken Fischer, associate professor of mechanical engineering. Dougherty met last year with officials at Honeywell in Kansas City, Mo., to investigate potential projects the department could work on with the company. It was after that meeting last summer that Honeywell engineer Scott Hoffman inquired about KU assisting on an unrelated senior design project to help Hoffman’s friend, Dr. Mark Byler, who was in need of a reliable autoclave at his medical camp in Sanyati, Zimbabwe.

Kayla Dill, a spring 2011 graduate in mechanical engineering and business administration, led the effort to develop a solar-powered autoclave that will be sent to the American doctors working in Sanyati. A medical autoclave sterilizes surgical instruments by subjecting them to extreme temperatures that viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms cannot survive.

Byler currently uses an autoclave powered by electricity, but the electric grid is highly unreliable. Diesel fuel is scarce and costly, and there’s no nearby water source suitable to supply the autoclave with hydroelectric power, Dill said. That left the students with one viable option to supply the power for their project.

“Solar is completely renewable, it’s good for the environment and it’s abundant in Zimbabwe,” Dill said. “The biggest challenge was just to keep our autoclave simple. It doesn’t require any electrical cords. It’s just a (metal) box with panels that will focus the sun. It needs to be very durable, and they need to be able to service it in their country.”

To ensure medical instruments are sterilized, they must be in the autoclave at temperatures above 285 degrees Fahrenheit for at least three hours. Dill said she’s confident that in Zimbabwe, the high irradiation from the sun will allow for successful sterilization of instruments.

Dill planned to move to London for a job with Black & Veatch after graduation, but will put her engineering career on hold for two years while she works for the Peace Corps in central Asia.
Medical Autoclave

“I’ve been really involved in Engineers Without Borders, and I’m really into the cultural side of things,” Dill said. “I really want to focus my engineering career on the developing world, so this project falls in line well with what I really want to do.”

Stewart Bernard, Brian Hatesohl and Travis Rowe, all seniors in mechanical engineering, worked with Dill on the project.

The medical autoclave was one of several intriguing senior design projects Dougherty’s students worked on during the spring 2011 semester.

From conception to completion, Dougherty said the senior design course provides students with valuable experience.

“They get pretty close to seeing what it’s like working in a company,” he said. “They have to learn how to deal with what a client wants. They have to learn how to deal with a budget, since the company is not going to pay everything under the sun for these. They have to work with vendors buying items, and they have to design something that really works.”


Clay Cooper, Michael Simon and Matt Westin, all seniors in mechanical engineering, are working with a team of KU professors from several disciplines and funding from KU’s Transportation Research Institute to design a system that simplifies different aspects of vehicle navigation, with the goal of minimizing distractions.

The students developed a simulated dashboard of sorts. The control system is to the driver’s right and would include gauges, climate control and entertainment. The setup focuses on eliminating elements most likely to cause distractions.

“The idea not is to not put too much information on the dash, but to have it be modular so it lets drivers choose the specific things displayed (like RPM, oil pressure, etc.,) and where that information is displayed,” Dougherty said.

Motorists would not be allowed to change the display while the vehicle is moving, but the system can be set up to send an alert if a problem arises in an area that’s not selected for display, Dougherty said. The system would also take into account the experience level of a driver, with possible limitations of what a teenage motorist could access.

“It seems like most of the manufacturers are trying to develop all these bells and whistles not thinking about the distractions side of it,” Dougherty said. “We’re really putting a lot of thought and effort into seeing what we can do to minimize those distractions.”


Rob Foree, Keith Richardson, Michael Streich and Stan Thompson, seniors in mechanical engineering, know they have a design project that really counts. And counts. And counts.

The students are working with Honeywell to improve the company’s system to count miniature parts accurately and rapidly. Honeywell officials cannot provide specific details on what material is being counted, Dougherty said, because of the top-secret nature of the company’s work developing components for weapons.

Dougherty said Honeywell currently measures these miniature parts, referenced simply as tablets, by weight, but their count can be off by 5 to 10 percent. The students are developing a device that uses a laser to count each tablet and then separate them into precise, uniform portions.

Other senior design projects focused on how third world countries can easily and cost effectively produce wind turbines from everyday materials, constructing a complex lift system to aid a southeast Kansas cement plant in switching out a 12,000-pound burning element and developing a device that allows a person to slip a latex glove on one hand without touching the glove with the other hand.

In the end, students ended up with great experience and industry benefits.

“Over the years, not every design team has always produced something that works, but in 90 percent of the cases, the students produce something a company can use, or at least can serve as a starting point for what they’d need,” Dougherty said.

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