Program trains the next generation of engineers

For the last five years, engineers from Fleet Readiness Center East at Cherry Point have been helping N.C. State systems engineering students at the Havelock campus of Craven Community College.

“I think we have employed everybody who has gone through this class with the exception of two,” said Mark Meno, group head of research and engineering at FRC East.

Meno, Todd Price, systems engineering division head at FRC East, and Russell Padgett, AIR-4.1 systems engineering department head, played the role of a customer during the latest semester in the program, providing specifications and design reviews for the students.

Not only are they helping the students, they are helping add to the workforce at FRC East, providing high-paying jobs to local students right out of college, thus adding to the area’s economy.

“This program has been great for us,” said Price. “Keeping a good steady flow of engineering talent coming in is something that can be a challenge. We do have a large engineering staff. We have attrition. We have retirements. We have people going for other opportunities, and having the source locally that has the capability of pushing out local types of students with high quality engineering degrees is something that is very valuable to us.”

Two or three engineers from FRC East have lent their assistance to the program that trains young engineers with the skills that are needed at the aircraft repair and maintenance facility at Cherry Point.

“Our participation in this every year is really associated with trying to help build systems engineers because that’s what we use all the time, so sitting in and acting as the customer really gives us the opportunity to interact with these kids,” Meno said. “Many of them will be our employees at some point, so this is kind of an early interview for them, and it’s a good opportunity for us to engage in the program as well.”

For this year’s challenge, students were asked to create an automated guided vehicle that would drive itself along a simulated factory floor delivering items from one station to the next. It would have to avoid obstacles while making turns and return to a data hub to download information about its journey.

Using an advanced set of Lego building materials, the AGV was decked out in sensors for touch, force, color and other items. A central processing unit controlled the functions and gathered information, making decisions based on programming created by the students.

Last week, the students and their FRC East advisors gathered for a final demonstration as the AGV dropped blocks and downloaded data. It performed almost flawlessly, but then Meno dropped a piece of paper in front of the vehicle, and it veered off course into a wall.

“One thing that I want all of you to take away from this is the reminder that engineering design means getting your hands dirty,” said Bill Fortney, N.C. State’s regional director for distance engineering programs. “You have to go and thoroughly understand and try out. You assume nothing.”

Fortney wanted the students to have a quality engineering ethos.

“I am not sticking this in my design until I personally go and see it work,” Fortney told them. “I try it. I know for sure. Now I’m OK to stick my name on this thing that now, two years down the road when it actually gets built, somebody’s not going to call me up and say ‘Hey, you know that thing you designed? It’s junk. It’s not working.’”

The students understood the lesson.

“Things don’t always work out perfectly the first time,” Havelock student Brenda Hathcock said. “There is always room for improvement.”

Student Jonathan Wiley said the key is to look at a project from all angles.

“Systems engineering is about looking at a problem from every possible angle so that you uncover requirements that aren’t apparent when you first look at it,” he said. “All of the tools we use we would shake out a requirement that just would not have occurred to us by looking at it from a different angle.”

And that angle may be completely opposite of what makes sense.

“We spent several hours trying to make it not work so that we could make sure that it does work,” student Matthew Fulton said.

Meno said the students put on an excellent demonstration.

“They’ve got the concept of system engineering better,” he said. “Every year it’s a little bit better, they get a little bit deeper. Bill tweaks his program and improves it every year and the students get a little bit better at it every year. This was an outstanding group.”

Price, a first-time program advisor, was impressed too.

“For me they have kind of set the bar,” he said. “They did very well. It was really interesting to see that lightbulb go off in their heads at times throughout the semester, and they took those ideas and incorporated them and they did a great job.”