STEP Signature Project – Undergraduate Research in Mechanical Engineering

1. Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project. 

For my STEP Undergraduate Research Project, I conducted project-based research in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, movement lab, under the guidance of my research advisor-Associate Professor Manoj Srinivasan. The goal of the project is to design, manufacture, and control a spherical jumping robot. Through the College of Engineering Honors Program, I got approval from IRB. My objective this summer consists of brainstorming ideas, designing and manufacturing parts, assembling and testing, and 3D dynamic simulation. I enhanced my problem-solving skills though hands-on practice that involves multiple fields of Mechanical Engineering. By conducting this research, I enhanced my understanding and ability of research and set up my goal of pursuing graduate school.

2. What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

Before conducting this research project, my understanding of research from what I heard from people was just stay in a laboratory to collect data over and over, and analysis with extensive programming. The research project I conducted was surprisingly challenging and interesting. Because this project is not based on other people’s previous research, everything I was doing was made out of scratch. The technical knowledge was mostly new to me so I have to learn everything from start. There were numerous difficulties and challenges along the way, and I sometimes were very desperate and wanted to give up. I reached out to every people that could help me and even get referrals. I crack the problems step by step and now I believe nothing is impossible if I take actions.

I talked with my research advisor recently, and he admits that this project is best for a group of Ph.D. students to work together, and each focus on one aspect of the project. He was very impressive about what I’ve done even though I didn’t meet my end goal by STEP’s due date, however, I honestly feel that I learned a lot more than what I’ve learned in the classroom. I will finish this project by the time of my graduation and I’m also starting another research focusing on biomechanics during Fall 2019.

 

3. What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you?

When I first started doing the design of the prototype, I thought this project would not be hard and everything will flow in a streamline. However, when I finish designing my SolidWorks parts and prepare to make physical parts, I found it hard to choose a 3D printer that fitted my budget and had a good performance. I ended up buying an Anycubic Photon SLA 3D printer, which did a good job but I had no experience with SLA printing. The preparation job was tedious and messy. The printing also failed many times because of my lack of experience. Then comes another big problem, after I assembled the parts together with a small but “strong” DC motor, the motor was not able to exert enough power I desired. Consulting with people in my department and my research advisor, I decided to use the Brushless DC (BLDC) motor. I bought a really good but expensive one used by another robot project by one of Berkely’s research lab. Here came another big problem that took me a whole week to solve. The BLDC motor needed an ESC board and a Lipo Battery to actuate and to control its speed. I was going to use Arduino to program the whole circuit but after I tried all kinds of programming, hook up my motor with ESC from other labs, hook up with my ESC with BLDC from other labs, etc. I found that the ECS I bought was the problem. I ended up finding that the ESC that came with the BLDC motor was not compatible with Arduino. As a result, I bought a few more ECSs from other brands but the motor I bought was not durable and the copper wire broke when I put the load on. So I bought a few more that was heavier but stronger and more durable BLDC motors from other brands. And another problem rise. The motor was too powerful and the 3D printed bridge of the robot was not strong enough and it broke up into pieces. I printed a few more parts with more robust designs but obviously, the plastic just couldn’t do the job. So I went to the machine shop and milled an Aluminum part. The robot didn’t end up smash into pieces but looked like there was a balancing issue since the motor only had one side attached to the bridge. So I bought a few kinds of ball bearings which solved the problem.

Then comes the simulation parts. I wasn’t good at MATLAB and Simulink when I learned them in class so I was not confident about getting it done successfully. I started off with doing a 2D simulation using MATLAB plotting as what I learned in class. But it involved so many calculations and matrix manipulations and given that the 2D simulation is an extremely simplified model of the real prototype. So after I get the program running and found there were no more factors I can take into the program, I started looking for 3D simulation software. I found many from varies companies, but I ended up using SimScape under Simulink since I have some basic knowledge about Simulink. However, I was too naive. The programming process is much harder than I expected. There was no well-organized tutorial available so I had to watch and read everything I could find. Learning a program by myself is very challenging since every other program I learned were taught in class. However, when I crackdown a problem or bug in the program, the satisfaction was a big incentive for me to move on. Looking back, I really think it wasn’t really that hard in terms of the technical knowledge, it is the mindset that I need to overcome the most difficult. Therefore, this makes me believe that nothing is impossible if I keeping trying and trying.

 

4. Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

My dad often says I’m a shy boy and don’t want to take challenges. I admit that I was very introvert and timid. However, by completing this Signature Project, I enhanced my courage to reach out to people who I don’t know and to delve into the difficulties by myself and crack it step by step. I built a strong relationship with many people in my department which made me a more social and confident person. My personality became more matured after I went through this project and I’m really thankful for this valuable experience STEP to enable me to do. Without the fellowship, I wouldn’t be able to stretch out all my ability to participate in the research. It is also valuable because I made up my mind to pursue graduate school after college since I see myself capable of conducting good research.

 

One of the prototypes with a small but weak motor

Final prototype without completed dynamic feedback control.