WPI Curriculum in Action: Students Take Pyramids from Conception to Completion

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass. - How does a university thank the individual and corporate sponsors who supported the renovation of an important campus building? If the university is one with a long history of using science and technology to solve real-world problems, the answer is right at hand.

WPI's Higgins Laboratories, home of the Mechanical Engineering Department, was rededicated on April 29 after completion of a two-year, $8.5 million renovation and expansion. When gifts for major contributors were needed, the department volunteered to seek out students willing to take the project from conception through completion. The result was a handsome, heavy, 4-inch-square pyramid paperweight.

"We knew we had the talent to design and manufacture a suitable gift for our most generous donors," says Mohammad Noori, mechanical engineering professor and department head. "The pyramid we ultimately selected is not only a lovely keepsake, but a tangible representation of how this university teaches its students to be problem-solvers, fosters teamwork, and prepares undergraduates for the challenges they will encounter in the workplace."

Noori found the student volunteers among the members of Sigma Mu Epsilon, the manufacturing honor society. Like several other honor societies, Sigma Mu requires potential inductees to complete a project. In the fall of 1995, officers Jarrod Rossacci, Jonathan Stewart and Andrew David met with John Bausch III, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who serves as the chapter advisor. "Since Sigma Mu is not composed exclusively of manufacturing engineers, we were attracted to this project because we could introduce inductees from other majors to some of the many aspects of manufacturing, including design, process choice, cost estimation and materials selection," says Bausch.

Once the potential inductees were selected they were split into three design teams and asked to come up with an idea for the gift. The teams were told to consider manufacturing feasibility, processes, time, cost and other special concerns. The design had to be appropriate for the rededication and capable of being manufactured at WPI. James Lagrant, manager of WPI's Robotics Laboratory, Todd Billings, a lab machinist in Washburn Shops, and Steve Derosier, a lab machinist in the Higgins Labs Machine Shop, worked with each team to craft a prototype out of machinist's wax. Noori and Richard Sisson, director of manufacturing engineering, evaluated each project.

The groups came up with a pyramid, a miniature (4 inch-wide) version of Higgins Laboratories, and a circular paper weight/business card holder. Noori and Sisson determined that the pyramid most closely met the criteria for the gift.

Last March, students began manufacturing the pyramids in Washburn Shops, where the initial shapes were cut out of 10-foot-long aluminum bars. The work then moved to the nearby Robotics Lab, where the students used several machines, including computer numerically controlled milling machines to machine the aluminum to its final shape. The pyramids were then sent to a plating company in Marlborough, Mass., where a maroon-colored hardcoat was anodized to the base material. After they were returned to the Robotics Lab, the WPI and Sigma Mu seals were affixed to opposite sides of the pyramid and the letters cut using the CNC milling machine. Ten pyramids were ready in time for the April 29 rededication; Thuan Phan 98 completed the remaining 70 units during the summer. The gifts will be sent to donors after the first of the year.

David, Rossacci and Stewart graduated with high honors in 1996 . Each received his bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering. David, a native of Whippany, N.J., is employed at Johnson and Johnson Professional in Boston; Rossacci, from Tacoma, Wash., is a master's candidate in materials science and engineering at WPI; and Stewart, from Mercer Island, Wash., is a master's candidate at Stanford University.

"We pushed our machines beyond the limits of their capability to do this project," says Lagrant. "By improvising as well as being creative with the processes, we were able to produce the 80 pyramids. I believe that the recipients of these gifts will be very pleased."