FIU Teaches Manufacturing Disciplines to Engineering Students

Among the more than 30,000 students attending renowned Florida International University (FIU) in Miami are some 4,000 young men and women pursuing degrees in various disciplines of engineering.  A required course for the mechanical engineering majors is Manufacturing Processes, located in the University’s Engineering Manufacturing Center, a focal point for Civil, Mechanical, Biomedical, Electrical and Computer Engineering, as well as Engineering Management majors.   It is here that they roll up their sleeves and get into the practical side of advanced manufacturing under the guidance of the Center’s coordinator and instructor Richard Zicarelli.


“The Manufacturing Center is responsible for bringing our students into contact with various industrial fields,” says Zicarelli.  “All graduating engineers here must be involved in a senior design project.  They work within a multi-disciplinary team, often working with a vendor or industry professional to help solve an issue or problem ranging from medical to automotive to aerospace and beyond.  By crossing disciplines, we’ll get an Electrical and Computer student, for example, to write codes for the mechanical students who will help out the biomedical people who know more about the body but not so much about the mechanics of building devices to assist the body.  By all working together, they’ll come up with a senior design that will be graded and weigh heavily on their level of success at graduation.”


Students are formed into several teams that work on different projects each semester.  One of the current teams is working with a doctor who is involved with prosthetics.  “The doctor has asked the team to develop a fold-out chair device,” says Zicarelli, “so when the doctor takes the prosthetic leg off the patient the doctor will have the ability to adjust the chair to accommodate the specific height of the patient.  The students are developing a swing-out apparatus that will let the doctor quickly balance the patient during prosthetic removal.”  Zicarelli’s team approach has also resulted in electronic stabilizers and measuring devices for prosthetics.  A doctor would normally take various measurements by hand, which can be somewhat cumbersome.  “We’ve come up with wireless devices that are motorized and help the doctor determine quickly and accurately what the doctor needs to do to adjust an existing or new limb.”


Also on the biomedical side, a team is currently working on a project to aid a dermatologist.  In practice, the doctor will inject a dye into the skin where a section has been removed to check for cancer cells.  “What the team is doing here,” says Zicarelli, ”is developing a device that will hold the doctor’s syringe and be adjustable so it will only penetrate the skin a certain amount.  The device will also hold a small camera that will allow the doctor to achieve precise positioning during the procedure and make finite adjustments for accurate measurements.”


The Manufacturing Center is also very much involved with student clubs on campus where mechanics is a prime element.   The FSAE Formula 1 Team builds a car every year that competes with other teams from across the USA and abroad and this club needs help with many of the mechanical components that go into a car designed to win races.  The cars are judged not only on their speed, but also on the engineering aspects of their fabrication.  “We do the same thing for cars the club designs for Shell-Eco,” says Zicarelli.  “The components go into a car that is designed not for speed or looks, but for maximum fuel efficiency.  For the Aero Club, we help build radio-controlled planes that compete against other teams from around the globe.  They have wingspans that range from a couple of feet to beyond twelve feet and are designed to lift certain payloads.  These are just two of the many mechanical-oriented student clubs the Manufacturing Center assists during the year to help them build their end products.”  Also, because FIU is a public research university, anything requiring fixtures or tooling for Faculty, Staff and student researchers’ work winds up at the Manufacturing Center for fabrication there or with the assistance of cooperating local vendors who have extended capabilities.


“In addition to working with engineering students and student clubs,” says Zicarelli, “the Center also works with entrepreneurs.  I call them the millionaire wannabe’s who have come up with what they think is the world’s next greatest idea, but really have no clue how to get it started.  They come to us for help and if it’s something we can help them along with, either by manufacturing components or even by pointing them in the right direction, we’ll do that.  Most of the time it’s a reality check for them.  They think we can do it free for them because we’re a university, but we still have to charge them about a third of what they would have to pay outside to cover the cost of materials and routine service on our machines.  We’ll try to help them realize their dreams, but if their needs are beyond our capabilities, we’ll direct them to the proper vendors or molders and even patent attorneys.”


Mr. Zicarelli points out that although the students’ aim is to have a career in engineering, it is important for them to understand the CAD/CAM functions of automated manufacturing.  They have to understand the ramifications of problems that can occur if they do not take all the manufacturing steps into consideration when designing a component or assembly.  To this end, we have a full complement of manual and CNC machine tools in our Center, plus five seats of Mastercam®, one for the instructor and four for students, to give them hands-on training and experience.  Prior to coming to FIU, I had extensive involvement with Mastercam.  I worked with it in industry, taught it on a tech school level and used it in my own consulting business.  One of the first things I did after coming on board here was to bring in Mastercam and make it a key component of the curriculum.”


Mr. Zicarelli makes sure the students are fully versed in hand coding before introducing Mastercam into the designing and programming of various parts and components.  “Mastercam is very easy for me to teach and for them to learn,” he says.  “They get excited when they realize the push of a button replaces the tedium of extensive hand coding.  In addition to industrial components, a senior project I like to give them is the design and fabrication of a two-part mold.  They’ll bring in their designs and apply toolpaths to them with Mastercam.  They realize not only what the machine is capable of, but also the incredible time saving factor.  Rather than produce an end product made of plastic or rubber, the students asked if they could mold something more ‘enjoyable.’  We tried injecting candle wax, gelatin, even pudding, without success.  Then we hit on the idea of everybody’s favorite, chocolate, that has just the right viscosity.  Now, they design the mold and program the toolpaths in Mastercam, machine the acrylic molds on our CNC machines, clean the molds to make them food grade, and then make candy bars to everyone’s delight.”


Right next to the Manufacturing Center’s shop is a second shop, fully equipped, that is available to the students, 24 hours a day, for working on their senior projects.  One requirement is that the student must be fully safety-certified to utilize the shop.  Considering the full schedules and heavy workloads of the students, who must work together on their projects in teams, this second shop is a beehive of activity around the clock.


“The reason we emphasize training in CAD/CAM and CNC machining,” says Zicarelli,  “is to instill in them the foundations of the three F’s in manufacturing—Fit, Form and Function.  These foundations must be addressed in each of their senior projects, whether it is a business card holder, a small jeweler’s vise, or the chocolate candy injection mold.  If any of the functions have not been followed correctly, we make the necessary changes in Mastercam to assure machining success.  Another foundation I teach them is equally important—Cost.  At the beginning of their project, I’ll ask them what they think it should cost out in the marketplace.  Part of their lab report will be to actually track everything they do, what we call value-added operations that add expense to the part from beginning to end.  Then we apply a cost factor to it that may only be a third of what industry would charge, but the students are shocked at the amount.  What they thought would be twenty or thirty dollars may actually cost a hundred dollars or more to manufacture.  I tell them ‘these parts are not mass-produced, so they fall into a prototype category where costs are much higher.  Then the prototypes will be tested and you’ll be asked to make changes.  You will always be at the high end of that cost, so you’ll have to keep Fit, Form, Function and Cost foremost in your mind as you work on your designs.’”


Throughout the semester, Zicarelli draws on his knowledge of the industry to give them some very important information: Reasons an engineer can be fired.  “For example,” he says, “reason number one is that they don’t understand tolerances.  Reason number two, frequently, is that they assume and don’t ask enough questions so they run down the wrong path.  What it all adds up to is an idea of what it means to be an engineer and how it relates to manufacturing.  This is a key role of the Manufacturing Center.”


Does all this work?  It must, because FIU’s graduates go on to careers at Lockheed, Boeing, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, and other prestigious companies, large and small, all across America.



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 FIU students Marco Zamora and Alejandra Daviglus attach a component to the 3-tier adjustable static fitting platform they designed and programmed in Mastercam for prosthetic leg patients.


FIU Manufacturing