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Sources: Warren White, 785-532-2615,;
and Joshua Ames,
News release prepared by: Tyler Sharp, 785-532-2535,

Thursday, June 16, 2011


MANHATTAN -- A team of Kansas State University students has changed the way mechanical engineering students will learn about control theory.

The students redesigned the MotorLab, an experimental system with a brushless DC -- or direct current -- motor and several necessary feedback devices. It's a valuable learning tool for teaching control theory, an interdisciplinary branch of engineering and mathematics that deals with the development and control of systems.

The students included: Edgar Martinez, May 2011 graduate in mechanical engineering, and Victor Salazar senior in mechanical engineering, both from Dodge City; Joshua Ames, freshman in biology, Lenexa; Jacob Wagner, senior in mechanical engineering, Manhattan; Joseph Valdes, sophomore in mechanical engineering, Liberty, Mo.; and Brian Blankenau, junior in mechanical engineering, Lincoln, Neb.

Warren White, K-State associate professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering, was the group's research adviser. His laboratory has featured many similar experiments in the past.

"Seeing things work makes the experience fun," White said. "That's basically what we do in this lab: We build and play with toys."

A number of experiments and operations can be completed with a MotorLab, including changing the load, driving the motor against the spring, position and velocity control, and numerous other functions.

"The MotorLab forms the basis for all laboratory exercises associated with our ME 570, or Control of Mechanical Systems I course, a required class in our curriculum," White said. "The MotorLab makes it possible to study issues typical of robot and machine tool applications. The hands-on opportunity the lab offers demonstrates many of the points developed in the lecture part of the class."

Replacing the aging MotorLabs, originally put together in 2002 by Dale Schinstock, associate professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering, motivated the project. Similar devices to the student-made MotorLab are traditionally expensive if purchased from laboratory vendors and, as a financial consequence, are designed by universities in-house.

A prototype design for the new MotorLab was completed and assembled in spring 2010. The team redesigned the MotorLab during the 2010-2011 academic year to reduce the production cost. To estimate manufacturing costs, the team created a list of parts with cost and shipping expenses. The new design is more affordable than its predecessor. It's also a fraction of the cost of similar products on the market.

"If you just buy a motor, power supply and a few pieces of feedback equipment from one vendor, it costs $4,000 and you still don't have an experiment you can do with it," White said. "This first prototype allowed us to put together an updated design and to get an estimate of the hardware and machining costs. We then came up with another design that was cheaper than the first."

The final design cost $1,500 to complete.

"It's used for education," White said. "This is what we teach our undergraduate laboratory with. A variety of real-world applications can be explored with it. If you want to control the position of the motor, you can also control the location of the robot joint. If you want to be able to control the speed of the motor, you can also control the rate at which a machine tool makes a cut."

White hopes to market the MotorLab to other universities for similar purposes. If that occurs, the proceeds will benefit the laboratory.

Though Ames switched his major to biology from mechanical engineering, he is still appreciative of the experience and plans to continue doing research.

"I have firsthand experience of what engineering is outside the classroom because I have been involved in the practical design of a product," he said.

Ames, Valdes, Martinez and Salazar are all members of K-State's Developing Scholars Program. The program offers underrepresented students research projects with faculty mentors. Students will receive academic, social, and financial support while participating in the discovery and creation of new knowledge at K-State. Developing Scholars provides structured, faculty-supported opportunities for selected students who typically have not been well represented in higher education in Kansas.