When Symbotic, a Massachusetts-based warehouse automation company, needed a new robot, they turned to a surprising source: They challenged several universities, including UNH, to fill their need for a utility cleaning robot that would vacuum and clean dense storage structures where Symbotic robots operate.
Five UNH students — mechanical engineering majors Patrick Sullivan ’18, Carl Stohlberg ’18, Peng Liu ’18, and Zhenghao Lu ’19 and computer science major Matt Gray ’18 — rose to the challenge, in the process securing a senior capstone project, skills in teamwork and design and valuable experience with industry collaboration.
Symbotic automates warehouse operations with robots that shelve and retrieve products while zipping along tracks at high speeds. When those products — such as groceries or dried goods — spill or leak, clean-up is labor-intensive and requires a costly shut-down of the entire system.
“They asked us to adapt their bot chassis to create a cleaning apparatus to reduce system downtime,” says Sullivan, from Keene, who served as team leader. The students modified the existing bot with an integrated cleaning system that included brushes, a vacuum and blower and water.
The exercise stretched the students to master computational fluid dynamics, 3D modeling, coding and wireless communication. “Because we were building something from scratch, there were a lot of components we had to build ourselves,” Sullivan says, adding that they spent hours at the machine shop in Kingsbury Hall.
“When the two worlds of theoretical and practical experience meet you come up with very good solutions for prototypes.”
For Symbotic, collaboration with universities is a new initiative that holds promise. “When we have a specific request that’s not easy for us to focus on with everything else we have to do, local universities can be a great resource,” says Symbotic’s senior director Juergen Conrad, who worked with the UNH team.
“The interactions we had with Symbotic were really professional, the kind you’d have in the real world,” says Sullivan, who has had post-graduation employment with aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney lined up since last summer. “It was a good learning experience for the team.”
Conrad describes the relationship between UNH and Symbotic as … symbiotic. “When the two worlds of theoretical and practical experience meet you come up with very good solutions for prototypes.”