Pitt | Swanson Engineering

The Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science (MEMS) is the largest in the school of engineering in terms of students and faculty. The department has core strengths in the traditional areas of bioengineering, manufacturing, microsystems technology, smart structures and materials, computational fluid and solid dynamics, and energy systems research. Key focus is reflective of national trends, which are vying toward the microscale and nanoscale systems level.

The Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science houses ABET-accredited mechanical engineering, engineering science, materials science and other engineering programs that provide the solid fundamentals, critical thinking, and inventive spark that fire up our graduates as they design the future. The department graduates approximately 90 mechanical and materials science engineers each year, with virtually 100% of them being placed in excellent careers with industry and research facilities around the globe.

The department houses faculty who are world-renowned academicians and accessible teachers, individuals of substance who seek to inspire and encourage their students to succeed. The department also has access to more than 20 laboratory facilities that enhance the learning process through first-rate technology and hands-on experience.

That experience is integrated into every aspect of the department. Events such as the SAE Formula Car Program add to students' real-world knowledge; each year, students construct their own vehicle and compete with students from other universities nationwide and internationally on the strength of their design and racing. The Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science also is involved in the Cooperative Education (Co-Op) Program, bringing students together with industry for three terms of professional work.

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A Foundation for Future Founders: The Swanson School Empowers a New Generation of Entrepreneurs

All SSoE News, Chemical & Petroleum, Electrical & Computer, MEMS, Student Profiles

.pullquote-feature { width: 50%; border-top: 1px solid #151414; border-bottom: 1px solid #151414; margin-left: auto; margin-right: auto; display: block; } With a 95–97 percent job placement rate for graduates over the past three years1, the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering provides a well-manicured path for those traveling from Benedum Hall to the halls of Fortune 500 companies. At an increasing rate, students who embrace risk and uncertainty for the sake of innovation are also finding the tools they need at the Swanson School to carve their own paths to success. Aspiring entrepreneurs can attend networking opportunities, compete for seed money, and receive one-on-one mentoring from experienced entrepreneurs and educators right on campus. There were 23 startups originating from the University of Pittsburgh in the 2017-18 fiscal year, a 53 percent increase from the previous year. In the spring of 2017, two of those companies—one with a tomato-picking robot and the other with nanoparticle-filled oxygen tanks—took their first steps off the Pitt campus and into the startup world. “Engineering students are adept at solving real-world problems. That is why so many of the students we have participating in our entrepreneurship programs and competitions come from the Swanson School. They want to see their ideas translated into new products and services that advance the state of the art and improve people’s lives,” said Babs Carryer, Director of the Big Idea Center for student entrepreneurship at the Pitt Innovation Institute. “We know we’re undertaking a good amount of risk, but knowing that there is a whole industry that needs the product we are building helps mitigate that. At the end of the day, there always is risk, but for me, to not do this would lead to regrets. We are all about solving the problem.” --Brandon Contino, CEO at Four Growers, Pitt ECE ‘17 Four Growers team: Brandon Contino (left) and Dan Chi (right). Instead of taking a traditional route upon graduation, two recent University of Pittsburgh graduates have taken a risk on a project cooked up during their undergraduate studies in the Swanson School of Engineering. Brandon Contino (ECE ‘17) and Dan Chi (MEMS ‘18) have spent the past year tirelessly promoting their startup, Four Growers, in a series of competitions, and their most recent success will take them to Silicon Valley where they will be among the leading minds of innovation and technology. Brandon and Dan met while working in the lab of David Sanchez, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Pitt. The two collaborated on different projects involving hydroponics, a method of growing plants in a water-based, nutrient rich solution. Growing increasingly interested in this method of farming, the pair visited a hydroponic tomato greenhouse in Chicago where they learned of a pressing problem facing the industry. Brandon explained, “More than 50% of the tomatoes consumed in the US are grown in greenhouse farms, but the industry is facing an issue with labor. After talking to the farmers, we discovered that there are shortages in the availability and reliability of the labor force, and we wanted to find a solution through robotics and automation.” This spurred the creation of Four Growers. Brandon and Dan planned to develop a product that provides reliable harvesting year-round for greenhouse farms. Creating a startup is a high risk, high reward endeavor, but Brandon and Dan had faith in their idea. “After speaking with other greenhouses about the industry, we learned that labor was a common problem, and when you have a strong need, clearly defined from your future customer, it really helps to lower the risk,” said Brandon. Confident in their mission, the Four Growers team developed a robotic tomato harvesting device for commercial greenhouses that can efficiently find and pick ripe tomatoes off the vine. The robot’s decision making is controlled by an algorithm that uses cameras and a neural network trained to find the proper fruit. A robotic arm and custom gripper enable the robot to harvest the tomatoes without damaging them. Additionally, their device provides analytics to the growers to help improve profitability. Creating the product is only one step towards entrepreneurial success; getting your product to market requires a bit of business acumen. Brandon and Dan believe they have benefitted from their past experiences at Pitt. During Brandon’s undergraduate years, he served as president of multiple organizations including Pitt Engineering Student Council, the Robotics and Automation Society, and the Panther Amateur Radio Club. Dan created the Hydroponics Club in Dr. Sanchez’s lab, was a member of Engineers for a Sustainable World, and acted as fundraising director of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers. These experiences have introduced them to aspects of leadership and management applicable to their new executive roles. The Four Growers team has also taken advantage of various entrepreneurial programs and resources like Pitt’s Innovation Institute and Carnegie Mellon University’s Project Olympus, which have both provided valuable mentorship and contacts. Brandon said, “The connections we’ve made along the way have played a large role in our success. We’ve been able to discuss business aspects of the company with our mentors and advisors, and their expertise and guidance have refined our ability to operate both the technical and business sides of Four Growers.” Hydroponic tomato greenhouse. Photo credit: Shutterstock. The journey, however, has not been entirely smooth sailing. “Creating and running a business has a steep learning curve, and Dan and I have been drinking from the fire hose for a while now,” said Brandon. “One of our biggest hurdles has been financing. While Dan finished his degree, we decided to bootstrap and as a hardware company, it takes money to iterate on a product. Initially, we just didn’t have much funding so we had to spend a lot of time searching for lower cost options or workarounds, which slowed some of our technical development.” To overcome this setback, Brandon and Dan have spent the past year trying to raise funds through a series of competitions. Their first success was with Pitt’s Randall Family Big Idea Competition where they won first place and $25,000 to help launch their idea. Then they took second place and $10,000 against some of the most innovative students from the 15 Atlantic Coast Conference schools at the ACC InVenture Prize competition. Their last event took them to Texas where they became one of the first two Pitt teams to compete in the prestigious Rice Business Plan Competition and made it to the semi-finals. With funds starting to accumulate and Dan’s graduation imminent, they looked for the next step towards success and applied to Y Combinator, a highly competitive startup accelerator in Mountain View, California whose alumni include Airbnb, Dropbox and reddit. Four Growers was accepted as one of 90 teams and will receive $120,000 in exchange for 7 percent equity position in their company. Brandon and Dan will travel back and forth between greenhouse farms, Pittsburgh, and Silicon Valley for three months during the summer and receive intensive training to refine their business and prepare pitches to investors. Four Growers has successfully completed autonomous tomato harvesting inside greenhouses with their device and plan to have a beta prototype in operation by December 2018. Brandon and Dan’s entrepreneurial spirit and passion for sustainable farming helped lead them down this career path. The team looks forward to the challenges ahead and hopes to reap the harvest of a successful business. Brandon said, “We know we’re undertaking a good amount of risk, but knowing that there is a whole industry that needs the product we are building really helps mitigate that. At the end of the day though there always is risk, but for me, to not do this would lead to regrets. We are all about solving the problem.” “I don’t think this could have happened at another university without these kind of resources. Once I dug into something and realized someone at my age could actually do this and find the support—all the support that’s out there—it really propelled the business into reality, and it became the thing I knew I wanted to do.” --Blake Dubé, CEO and Co-Founder at Aeronics Inc., Pitt ChemE ‘17 Aeronics team: Alec Kaija (left), Blake Dubé (middle), Mark Spitz (right). With his sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh nearing an end, the last thing Blake Dubé (ChemE ’17) was looking to do was start a business. “I didn’t just breeze through the first two years of college,” he recalls. “It took a lot of work focusing on my classes and learning about chemical engineering. It wasn’t like I decided to start a business because I was looking for a bigger challenge.” Nearly three years later, Blake has won about a dozen startup competitions, he has a product scheduled to go to market this year, and he works full-time as CEO of the company he co-founded, Aeronics, Inc. Back in the spring of 2015, the only thing Blake was looking for was a lab to do summer research. After a visit to the ninth floor of Benedum Hall, Blake started research in the lab of Chris Wilmer, assistant professor of chemical engineering and himself an entrepreneur. Dr. Wilmer and his team were researching ways to use nanomaterials to improve gas storage, transportation, and safety in the many industries kept aloft by gas. Blake spent his time in the lab running computer simulations to find the best nanomaterial configurations for maximizing gas storage without the high levels of heat and pressure caused by putting too much gas into too small a container. “I realized gas storage was such a broad field and started wondering where I could make a difference in the three months I would be working in the lab,” says Blake. “Most of the focus seemed to be on energy sources like methane and hydrogen, and there wasn’t as much work being done with oxygen. I started to think about how better oxygen storage could make an impact.” The following semester, Blake enrolled in ChE 314: Taking Products to Market taught by Eric Beckman, Distinguished Service Professor of Chemical Engineering and co-director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation at Pitt. Dr. Beckman, who had co-founded his own business for commercializing technology, guided students through the process of turning ideas into marketable products. When Blake showed an interest in applying his lab research to the class, Dr. Wilmer suggested he enter the Randall Family Big Idea Competition, a university-wide innovation challenge. Everyday Oxygen prototype. The Randall Family competition takes place from February to March each year and awards $100,000 in prizes to Pitt students working on interdisciplinary teams to bring product ideas to market. Blake recruited teammates Alec Kaija, a PhD candidate in Dr. Wilmer’s lab, and Mark Spitz, a kinesiology and exercise science student and long-time friend of Blake from their hometown of York, Pa. Dr. Wilmer served as the team’s faculty advisor. “We started the Randall Family competition with the idea of fitting oxygen and the materials from Dr. Wilmer’s lab in a soda can. By the end of it, we actually had plans for a viable product, and since we won the grand prize, we had money to get started,” says Blake. The team won first place and the grand prize of $25,000 to get their company up and running. Blake, Mark, and Alec became co-founders of the startup Aeronics and went on to win several more competitions. By the spring of 2017, Aeronics had claimed more than $120,000 in prize money. While Blake and Mark were getting fitted for their graduation robes, they were measuring up the odds of successfully running their own business. “BASF, the largest chemical producer in the world, offered me a full-time job before I graduated. It would have been a great way to start my career. Around the same time, Aeronics was incorporated,” he says. “When you’re an entrepreneur at the university, before you graduate is different than after you graduate. Now you better make it work. The pressure is on.” Fortunately, Aeronics handles pressure well. Their prototype could store about three times as much oxygen as a standard portable oxygen tank at the same pressure. Still considering a more traditional career path, Blake consulted with Steve Little, the chair of the chemical engineering department, for advice. Dr. Little had been helping Aeronics navigate some of the issues with starting a private company at a university. “I remember asking Dr. Little for advice because he had experience starting his own business. He helped us a lot throughout the beginning stages, but he said to me, ‘I can give you all the advice you want, but sooner or later you’re just going to have to do it to find out if it will work,’” says Blake. One year later, Aeronics has completed two startup accelerator cohorts, found its own lab space to operate, and developed a product called Everyday Oxygen, which stores three times the oxygen as competitors’ cans. Everyday Oxygen is available for pre-order on their website and will be ready to ship in the fall. Looking back, Blake says he liked most of his experiences with research, internships, and studying chemical engineering at Pitt in general. He didn’t dream of becoming an entrepreneur as a kid, but now that he’s running his own business, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else. “I don’t think this could have happened at another university without these kind of resources. Once I dug into something and realized someone at my age could actually do this and find the support—all the support that’s out there—it really propelled the business into reality, and it became the thing I knew I wanted to do,” he says. ### 195 to 97 percent job placement rate over the past three years, http://www.engineering.pitt.edu/Friends-Giving-Administration/Office-of-the-Dean/Quick-Facts/
Leah Russell (Four Growers feature) and Matt Cichowicz (Aeronics feature)

A Structured Solution


PITTSBURGH (July 6, 2018) … Additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing, is an advanced manufacturing process capable of fabricating complex components by sintering layers of powders together. This process requires support structures to maintain the component’s structural integrity during printing. Unfortunately, removing these supports is not only expensive, but can also be difficult-to-impossible if the supports are located in the interior of the component.  This limits the adoption of AM by industries such as nuclear energy, which rely on cost-effective manufacturing of complex components.To find an effective solution to these complex processes, the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering will be the lead investigator on a $1 million award to advance design and manufacture of nuclear plant components via AM. The award is part of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy’s Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies (NEET) program.The novel research will be directed by Albert To, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science (MEMS) at the Swanson School. Co-investigators include Wei Xiong, assistant professor of MEMS at Pitt, and Owen Hildreth, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Corporate collaborators in Pittsburgh include Curtiss-Wright Corporation and Jason Goldsmith at Kennametal Inc. The integrated approach taken by the project team will be to develop innovative dissolvable supports, greater topology optimization, and improved microstructure design to make state-of-the-art nuclear components at lower cost, with minimal distortion, and greater structural integrity.“Many gaps still remain in the scientific understanding of additive manufacturing, most especially the optimization of the assembly process while reducing build failure and cost,” Drs. To and Xiong explained. “Removing internal support structures in complex additive manufactured components via post-machining is costly and sometimes impossible. By integrating dissolvable supports, topology optimization, microstructure design, we have an opportunity to drastically reduce post-processing costs for AM components, while ensuring manufacturability of designs with complex internal features like those needed in the nuclear industry.” According to Dr. Hildreth, post-processing accounts for 30 to 70 percent of the cost of producing AM products, with support removal accounting for the majority of those costs. “Our dissolvable support technology enables consolidation of the many manufacturing steps currently required for complex nuclear components into one AM assembly. This will reduce manufacturing costs by 20 percent and improve manufacturing schedules by at least six months,” he explained. “This work will help bring dissolvable supports to not just nuclear applications, but to the broader metal AM community so that costs can be significantly reduced. Metal AM is projected to be a $21.2 billion industry in five years, and these batch-processable dissolvable supports could save the industry $10 billion while also expanding design freedom and reducing post-processing machining.” The Pitt Award is one of five NEET Crosscutting Technologies projects led by Department of Energy national laboratories, industry and U.S. universities to conduct research to address crosscutting nuclear energy challenges that will help to develop advanced sensors and instrumentation, advanced manufacturing methods, and materials for multiple nuclear reactor plant and fuel applications.This is the Swanson School’s second NEET award in as many years. In 2017, Kevin Chen, the Paul E. Lego Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Pitt, received $1.275 million to lead a collaborative study with MIT, the National Energy Technology Laboratory and Westinghouse Electric Corporation to develop radiation-hard, multi-functional, distributed fiber sensors, and sensor-fused components that can be placed in a nuclear reactor core to improve safety and efficiency.“Because nuclear energy is such a vital part of our nation’s energy portfolio, these investments are necessary to ensuring that future generations of Americans will continue to benefit from safe, clean, reliable, and resilient nuclear energy,” said Ed McGinnis, DOE’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy. “Our commitment to providing researchers with access to the fundamental infrastructure and capabilities needed to develop advanced nuclear technologies is critical.” Image above: Cracking in the build resulting from excessive residual stress in the support structure from the laser powder bed additive manufacturing process. Image below: Failed build of a complex part due to excessive residual distortion from  the laser powder bed additive manufacturing process. ###


Katherine Hornbostel featured on WTAE for her breastfeeding device


Swanson School professor Katherine Hornbostel was featured on WTAE for her Pump2Baby invention. Watch the video on WTAE's website. University of Pittsburgh mechanical engineering professor Dr. Katherine Hornbostel developed a device to help other breastfeeding moms after her twin boys struggled to nurse. "When they came, I put a lot of pressure on myself to nurse them exclusively and to make sure I made enough milk for both of them," Hornbostel said. "That led to a lot of stress and a lot of sleepless nights." Because her boys weren't latching on very well, she was pumping almost exclusively. "I was hooked up to a big breast pump, sitting down every two to three hours around the clock, every day, for 30 minutes at a time," Hornbostel said. A few years later, while a grad student at MIT, Hornbostel invented the Pump to Baby Bottle. Read the full transcript from WTAE here.


Bringing MomTech to Life: MEMS Professor Katherine Hornbostel Designs a Gadget To Help Moms Breastfeed

All SSoE News, MEMS

Read coverage by Anya Sostek at the Post-Gazette here. PITTSBURGH (May 15, 2018) … Breast milk has many known health benefits, but breastfeeding is not always an option for moms, and many turn to pumping as an alternative. Katherine Hornbostel, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, wanted to make this often cumbersome process easier. She decided to tackle the antiquated design of modern breast pumps and create a clever attachment that would make pumping more like nursing. Hornbostel found herself in this parenting world after giving birth to twins during her doctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and decided to participate in their Breast Pump Hackathon six months into motherhood. “‘Mom-tech’ is really behind the curve, and there is a lot of room for innovation,” said Hornbostel. “The hackathon put me into the mindset of creating new products for mothers, and two years later, I found myself filing my first ‘mom-tech’ patent for Pump2Baby.” “Whether it is difficulty latching, giving birth to multiples, returning to work, or a host of other common issues, many women struggle with nursing and start pumping to produce breast milk,” explained Hornbostel. “I wanted to create something to ease frustration with the pumping process.” Pump2Baby is a breast pump accessory that connects to any Medela breast pump. The user begins hands-free pumping with a pumping bra, and once some milk has accumulated in the bottle, the baby can suck it out through tubing to a nipple.  A special valve in the bottom of each bottle prevents milk from leaking until the baby starts sucking. Between pumping, cleaning, and feeding, the current process can take an hour for each feeding session. With around 8 feedings a day for newborns, pumping quickly becomes a full-time job for moms. Hornbostel’s Pump2Baby design saves time and stress by allowing moms to pump and bottle-feed simultaneously. “Many women, myself included, get burned out on pumping milk around the clock. I think the hardest part for me was that I could not take care of my twin infants when I was constantly attached to that pump,” said Hornbostel. “If I had Pump2Baby back when my boys were newborns, I almost certainly would have stuck with pumping longer because I could have actually fed them while pumping milk.” In addition to its time saving features, Pump2Baby also returns another benefit of breastfeeding- the mother’s bonding experience with her child. The ability to pump and feed at the same time means the user can now hold their baby while pumping which simulates the bond moms create while breastfeeding. “There are human factors to the production of milk,” explains Hornbostel. “Some women struggle to produce milk because the process of pumping is too mechanical. Holding your child and connecting with them often helps encourage production.” Hornbostel believes that this product is going to change the way we approach “mom-tech” and hopes it will spur future innovations. She calculates that this product could save the user a total of 180 hours over six months if they exclusively pump. These precious hours mean more time spent with your little one or better yet...more sleep. ###


MEMS Undergraduate Wins National Center for Women & Information Technology Collegiate Award

MEMS, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (May 9, 2018) … Joanna Rivero, a senior mechanical engineering student at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, is one of four recipients of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) Collegiate Award. Though careers in technology are on the rise, the number of women in the field is small. NCWIT is a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the number of women in computing starting from K-12 and continuing through their professional careers. This award recognizes technical projects that demonstrate a high level of creativity and potential societal impact. Rivero received the award for her work with thermoelectric generators (TEG). She explained, “There is an urgent need to find a renewable and sustainable source of energy as an alternative to the fossil fuels that we heavily depend upon. TEGs are a potential alternative that use heat to produce energy through a thermal gradient formed between two dissimilar conductors.” Diagram of a TEG showing an optimized leg (right) and the constant (left) in a per slice basis. Rivero works as a student researcher for Dr. Matthew Barry, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Pitt, and their project combines multiphysics and multi-method algorithms to develop mathematical models to optimize TEG power systems. Barry and Rivero’s work builds upon established methods that determine an optimized leg shape profile of a TEG for an accurate prediction of performance. Their research, however, is unique in its execution. “Our model gives an accurate geometric prediction that uses both numerical and analytical methods, which has never been done before,” said Rivero. “This thermal-electric coupled solution algorithm allows for the simultaneous resolution of temperature and current and, therefore, power within the TEG.” The result of the optimized leg shape for a TEG with the materials used. “Both algorithms take the cross-sectional area of each TEG leg in slices. One leg is optimized while the other is kept constant, which allows the geometric properties to be solved in relation to one leg,” explained Rivero. “We used this method because it results in more accurate performance predictions by taking into account the intermediate temperatures between each slice. The methods used showed an increase in performance for both efficiency and power output when compared to conventional modeling.” In addition to the $10,000 prize, recipients of the NCWIT Collegiate Award are also given a scholarship to attend the organization’s Summit on Women in IT from May 15-17 in Grapevine, Texas. In the fall, Rivero will continue her studies as a PhD student in the Swanson School and looks forward to taking advantage of more opportunities as she continues to grow at Pitt. She said, “I had no clue I would end up in this field. Dr. Barry’s work is heavily dependent on computing and technology, and what began as a requirement to work in his group turned into a passion of mine after I realized the huge impact technology brings to advancing and aiding research.” ###

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