by Carol F. Stoel
Metro is preparing to undertake a three-year project to replace four Van Ness escalators that are at the end of their 35-year lifespan – and have broken down frequently during that period. What if the escalators could be redesigned to extend their useful life, and keep breakdowns and downtime at a minimum?
Enter, UDC’s mechanical engineering students.
Since 2013, seniors at the University of the District of Columbia’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences have worked on a project sponsored by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to study and develop designs to reduce escalator breakdowns. In a recent phone conversation with Lonnie Murray, WMATA’s general superintendent for the Office of Elevator and Escalator Services, I learned how the partnership works.
Murray was approached by Devdas Shetty, the dean of UDC’s College of Engineering, to initiate a partnership that would serve the public, WMATA, and the students. Murray and Madhavan Kozhipurath, WMATA’s manager of engineering in the Office of Elevator and Escalator Services, introduced the students to the broad outline of their first challenge – the premature failure of a drive motor shaft bearing. At WMATA’s lab in Washington, students were shown the various component parts and set to work. With guidance from UDC Professor Jiajun Xu and Dean Shetty, students were expected to develop possible solutions.
Dean Shetty told me the motor shaft bearing was chosen for this project because data collected from escalator failures indicated this part is one of the primary causes of a breakdown. The bearing wears out quickly, he said, because it carries the entire load in a running escalator and rotates at the same time.
“Due to environmental factors around the escalator and because of its nonstop and continuous usage, this bearing part gets heated,” Shetty said. “The older design does not dissipate heat easily and causes wear and tear in the part.”
It was also not designed with ease of assembly – and ease of disassembly – in mind for repairs.
“Design for disassembly is a modern concept,” Shetty said, included in his just-published textbook Product Design for Engineers (Cengage Publications). Shetty’s students also worked to address that problem and reduce escalator downtime during repairs.
“Right now removing the bearing takes a long time,” Shetty said, so the students created a special tool designed to more easily remove the redesigned bearing assembly. They also created a prototype of the tool using a 3D printer.
How did they arrive at their solutions? The student-faculty team evaluated the current design, studied existing state-of-the-art methods in the escalator industry, and applied Shetty’s “design for disassembly” concepts. The final step: Comparing old and new. Shetty says the new design has a higher level of efficiency and fewer parts.
The final design was presented on April 29th to a gathering of students, faculty, invited judges and industry sponsors.
The results of their research and explorations are promising, but what happens next? Shetty said Metro plans to build an industrial model of the new design at its testing facility in DC. UDC may be involved in further development of industrial model and testing before the technology gets into new escalators. And in the next phase of the capstone partnership, students are looking at improving the escalator handrails and investigating other reasons the mechanisms break down, such as corrosion and vibrations.
I wondered if their breakthroughs might be patentable, but Shetty explained that since the work is in the core business area of WMATA, it belongs to WMATA.
While it would be wonderful if their work someday results in more reliable escalators, what matters most is what the students get out of this project and others like it. The students’ work fulfills a graduation requirement, but also opens doors to them after they graduate.
Says Dean Shetty: “They have to demonstrate how a combination of experience and knowledge acquired in previous courses taken thus far is used in real life. In other words, the final project is testimony of a student’s problem-solving ability in a real industrial situation.”
With no hesitation, WMATA’s Murray said students were ready for the job market. And he’s not the only one who thinks so. I had the privilege of interviewing four of the seniors in the capstone project. Mheeraw Kennedy is going to a Navy lab as a civilian, and Jote Jinfessa has a job in Pittsburgh with a large engineering company. David Lesley and Khaled Ben Tekaya were in the job market, but well on their way to employment. Shetty said overall, the job market for mechanical engineers and other fields of engineering and computer science is looking good this year.
Our city is fortunate to have a growing engineering college that will address some critical issues in our community. According to Dean Shetty, The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at UDC has grown 30% in the last two years. Fully accredited by the national Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET), the school has 325 students in civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering, and in computer science and information technology. They expect the number will double with a new biomedical engineering program and graduate programs being developed by a committed faculty. Biomedical engineering students will work in local hospitals on rehabilitation and other medical needs.
Shetty’s goal is to prepare problem solvers who will help our city and region meet future challenges successfully. The WMATA partnership offers a good model for finding practical and workable solutions to critical problems.