Rensselaer Engineers Win First Place at ASME Student Competition

19 November 2010

For the second year in a row, a pair of Rensselaer students took first place at the annual Student Manufacturing Design Competition held by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).

Mechanical engineering doctoral students Casey Hoffman and Jaron Kuppers won top honours in the national competition last month for their innovative Specialized Elastomeric Tooling (SET) process. The SET process offers a new method for curing advanced composites, which they say is significantly less expensive and requires 500 to 1,000 times less energy than the conventional curing methods.

The competition, held in mid-October at the 2010 ASME International Manufacturing Science and Engineering Conference in Erie, Penn., was established in 1995 and is among the leading national manufacturing and design competitions for undergraduate and graduate students. Hoffman and Kuppers presented at the event, and were accompanied by faculty project sponsor Daniel Walczyk, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering (MANE) at Rensselaer.

""It's a large international conference, with students from many other top engineering programs entering the competition, so it's really exciting to have won first place,"" said Hoffman, who invented the SET process and was also a finalist in the 2010 Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer Student Prize. Born and raised in Kempton, Penn., Hoffman received his bachelor's degree in physics from Moravian College in Bethlehem, Penn., and his master's degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer.

""The competition was tough, but we worked really hard on our project, and in the end our efforts paid off,"" said Kuppers, who added a computational 3-D modeling aspect to the project, to optimize the shape of molds used in the SET process. Originally from Pikesville, Md., Kuppers received his bachelor's degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and master's degree from Rensselaer, both in mechanical engineering. Kuppers co-chairs the Student Sustainability Task Force at Rensselaer.

The patent-pending SET process put forth by Hoffman and Kuppers replaces the need for autoclaves. The process involves curing a composite laminate by pressing the material between heated, rubber-lined molds. Heating occurs quickly because the composite is in direct contact with the tool. The shape of the rubber mold half is derived computationally using 3-D computer modeling and simulations.

According to Rensselaer, the SET process results in up to a 1,000-fold energy savings over an autoclave and eliminates the need for expensive consumable materials that are sent to a landfill after each use. They say that the time required to prepare a composite part for curing in an autoclave is a few hours, while it takes less than 10 minutes to perform the prep on a SET system.

""The ASME Student Manufacturing Design Competition is arguably the most prestigious U.S. competition for undergraduate and graduate students working on manufacturing research and development. The fact that Jaron and Casey placed first and two other student groups were finalists in this competition is evidence that Rensselaer runs a world-class manufacturing program,"" said Walczyk. ""I believe that Rensselaer faculty and students will continue to play a leading role in demonstrating U.S. manufacturing excellence and helping prevent further erosion of manufacturing jobs, especially in the advanced composites arena.""

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