An ergonomic cell phone holder, an umbrella attachment for a wheelchair, a customized arm brace, and a prosthetic limb for a cat – these are just a few of the designs emerging from UNC Asheville’s Creative Fabrication class. The computer science course, CSCI 173, which attracts a number of mechatronics engineering majors, has partnered with sculpture classes, ART 346, 347, 446, to move beautifully beyond design concepts into prototypes. Pairs of engineering and art students work together to make assistive technologies.
For Emily Beall, a junior sculpture major, and Ian Arlen, a junior mechatronics major, the assignment has taken the form of an all-terrain cane. The claw-like foot will help users navigate a variety of surfaces, something essential for the Asheville area. The pair drew their inspiration from the landscape and from friends who mentioned the need.
“They said it would be nice to have something to help them get outside,” says Arlen. “Their cane or walker worked on streets and sidewalks, but they wanted something with real maneuverability and to gain traction on broken ground.”
The idea gained traction when they settle on the design of an eagle claw. Beall often draws from animal forms, but the functional ability was another consideration.
“It’s been interesting to see a more logical point of view,” she says. “I’ll think something feels right; he’ll say it makes sense logically. It’s interesting to merge the two schools of thought.”
“We focus on disability as diversity,” says Rebecca Bruce, professor of computer science and associate director of the Engineering Program at UNC Asheville, who team-teaches Creative Fabrication with Susan Reiser, associate dean of natural sciences.
“There’s the potential of getting our students to understand the aesthetic of design…. Some things have already become apparent in this approach, including our differences. We are able to meld these differences,” says Bruce.
Much of that melding was in 3D. Mechatronics majors become experts in 3D modeling and the art students have hands-on experience.
“We had to make something beautiful,” explains Christian Newhan, a junior mechatronics major. “When we worked on the 3D model, we would put in functional design things, such as making it lighter, but we would place them in a way to make it more aesthetically beautiful. We added some things purely aesthetic and purely functional, but there were the in-between ones such as an improvement we could make and the most beautiful way to handle it.”
Newhan, and senior art major Zach Seguin, designed a rock climbing blade, on a scale larger than expected.
“He helped me understand the engineering and the force that it could take. I was thinking about a smaller blade, but he explained why it might not work well for rock climbing. He helped me with the shape of the blade too,” says Seguin.
Newhan also learned from the art perspective his 3D design partner Seguin brought to the table. “He made the blade and took into consideration the physics behind it, such as distributing the force evenly and how to make it light. Then he was able to make the blade look like a sailboat, almost.”
Making It Work
Mechatronics engineering, which is a combination of mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering, deals with the computer control of movement and is at the forefront of today’s scientific, industrial, health care, and technology fields. At UNC Asheville, it’s offered as a joint program with NC State, housed in Asheville and the only program of its kind in the state. The model of merging mechatronics with art stems from what’s worked at research 1 universities and some of the most successful companies. At UNC Asheville, that means partnering with acclaimed artists and scholars.
“This kind of work is happening everywhere. Artists and engineers are working together on a vast array of projects. It’s combined computer knowledge and material understanding that makes for a great skill set. If our students are going to be successful they must be able to collaborate and work across disciplines,” says Brent Skidmore, assistant professor of art, who led the sculpture classes working on the projects, along with fellow faculty member Jackson Martin, assistant professor of art.
The result is a competitive advantage, not only for the program graduates, but also for the companies they work for, where the convergence of design and engineering leads the way in a creative economy.
Forming the Design
“In combining seemingly disparate fields, you have different perspectives coming into play. It’s good for both the art student and engineering student, one coming from technical place and one coming from abstract, creative place. From the engineering perspective, working with artists can open up possibilities, and vice versa,” says Sara Sanders, a 2011 UNC Asheville mechatronics graduate who recently returned to campus to manage the Engineering Design Studio and Lab. Her work includes helping students with the design and fabrications with their projects, which in the Creative Fabrication class includes 3D modeling and printing.
Students then traverse campus, taking their prototype part to the foundry at Owen Hall to start a ceramic shell process, which takes several weeks to build up a half inch mold. A pass through the kiln burns out the plant-based plastic. Bronze casting follows.
“Then the students split ways. They cast identical parts, and they complete their device on their own. It’s interesting to see how they diverge and how the parts come together,” says Sanders.
The completed designs will be on display Nov. 23-Dec. 14 in the Second Floor Gallery of Owen Hall, with an opening reception on Friday, Dec. 4, from 6-8 p.m.