MIT short course addresses precision product design

June 5, 2017

Enabling practicing engineers to achieve designs they can bring to market is the goal of the MIT one-week course “Innovative Precision Product Design,” according to Alexander Slocum, the Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT and one of the course’s instructors. Scheduled for June 26-30 in Cambridge, the course presents a deterministic design process and philosophy, which encourages creativity while minimizing risk. The upcoming course marks the second presentation in a one-week format, although Slocum said he has taught the evolving material in shorter and longer formats over time.

With enough cycles of trial and error, Slocum said in a recent phone interview, engineers can hack together something. However, that something might be overtoleranced and therefore too expensive, or if tolerances are too loose you can have a rattle-y machine. It might not seize up but won’t provide the necessary accuracy. Worse, machines may be begin failing in the field after six months.

One goal of deterministic precision engineering, he said, is to rationally assign tolerances. Prayer might be wonderful in one’s personal life, he said, but engineers shouldn’t have to pray that their designs will work. The course will present a method of taking the guesswork out of the design process while enabling rapid convergence to a successful design.

Slocum has done a lot of research in precision machine design and has created tools that the industry can put to use—such as a kinematic design spreadsheet. Design of a kinematic coupling will represent one of the hands-on projects in the course, the second being a boxway slide system. Hands-on projects are valuable, he said, because humans are tactile lifeforms. Students will be able to feel error motions and learn where they are coming from. You can read about cooking, he said, but to be successful you have to get into the kitchen and smell the garlic roasting.

With any professional education class, prospective students face time pressures that can prevent them from attending. But Slocum said students in his class can bring with them a project they are working on, ask specific questions, and benefit from real-time peer review. In addition, managers who might not have training in machine design can learn fundamental principles and gain an understanding of first-order calculations that can indicate whether a particular project is likely to succeed. It can instill a “fantasy sensor” that can signal that a project is not realizable.

Slocum described several projects on which he has worked, ranging from silicon microrelays to a concept for next-generation offshore wind turbines. One project involved the development of the SEMI E57-1296 Kinematic Coupling Standard for aligning and supporting 300-mm wafer cassettes. His work led to the formulation and implementation of the standard, he said, which is now in use by all companies for 300-mm semiconductor wafer cassettes and interfaces. (See “Kinematic Couplings: A Review of Design Principles and Applications.”)

Co-instructor Dr. Nevan Hanumara says in a video describing the course, “One of the key take-homes of this course is that you can achieve performance, you can achieve precision, but you don't have to do it at the expense of high cost if you start early in the design process.”

Hanumara, program manager for the MIT Tata Center for Technology + Design and a Research Scientist in MIT Mechanical Engineering’s Precision Engineering Research Group, elaborated on the deterministic design process. “The idea is that you can take your highly creative people—yourself included—in your organization, and channel that creativity to really effectively attack problems,” he said. “The way you do it is by exploring fully the solutions base, while doing analysis simultaneously, while prototyping, and while considering the risks. So if it doesn’t work, what are you going to do about it? What we would say is we encourage brainstorming, and we bring structure to the creativity.”

Register for the course here. If you can’t get to Cambridge, the course can also be presented for groups of employees at your location. For more background, see Slocum’s FUNdaMENTALS of Design.