CSUN Students’ Vision-Assisted Robotic Arm Takes the Grand Prize in the 2017 Manufacturers Challenge and Exposition

  • CSUN student team and professor Bingbing Li with the vision-assisted robotic arm. Photo by Lee Choo.

For the first time in California State University, Northridge history, eight mechanical systems engineering students and several computer science students were assigned a year-long, seminal senior design project to create CSUN’s first robotic arm to compete at the 2017 Small Manufacturers’ Institute Manufacturing Challenge and Exposition.

Their year of hard work was rewarded with the grand prize at the prestigious competition at the Goodwill Industries in Los Angeles in April.

In the fall 2016 academic semester, Bingbing Li, a professor in CSUN’s Department of Manufacturing Systems Engineering and Management, encouraged his students to engage in robotics-related research to build their department’s first robotic arm for the competition. He challenged his students to come up with one of the hardest senior design projects.

CSUN manufacturing systems engineering recent graduate and project team leader, Anna Chilingarian, and her classmates — Attallah Alamri, who graduated last month; Ahmed Alotaibi, who graduated last month; Aida Andreasyan, who graduated last month; Johnny Flores, who graduated last month; Sara Varta, who graduated last month; Lucas Kellner who graduated last month; and graduating senior Brendan Leddy — spent hours coming up with different project ideas to which they could dedicate a year. After many iterations, the team decided to design and manufacture a vision-assisted robotic arm that would allow the robot to use cameras to process videos and images to track its motion and identify objects.

“The real inspiration for the project was that we wanted to do something in robotics,” said Chilingarian. “We wanted to do something related to our field [so] our team could get experience in technical skills.”

Once their idea was approved by Li, the team collaborated with CSUN’s Matador Emerging Technology and Arts Lab, the Department of Computer Science and professor Jeff Wiegley’s computer science senior design class to add vision capabilities to the robotic arm. The computer science students who worked on the project included, project team leader Garret Richardson, who graduated last month; Manvel Mkhitaryan, who graduated last month; Christopher Bass, who graduated last month; graduating senior Maroof Haque, and senior Daniel Schetritt.

Since the students did not have any background in developing robotic vision, they did extensive research to teach themselves.

“Being an engineer is about challenging yourself,” said Flores. “The more challenges you have and the more tasks they assign to you makes it more exciting.”

The students manufactured the robotic arm in the College of Engineering and Computer Science‘s engineering shop and designed an interchangeable hand on the robot. This feature allows future programmers and designers to change the hand to make the robot do various tasks. With the team’s current design, the robot tightens and untightens bolts, and lifts up to 35 pounds.

When the group finished their designs for the robot and began ordering parts from vendors, they faced their first real-world engineering problem: The costly prices and the time to obtain the parts dragged on, putting the student team in a bind. With time running out, the students were forced to change the internal motors of their design and order new parts from a different manufacturer just two months before CSUN’s College of Engineering and Computer Science’s Senior Design Project Showcase on April 14. The college’s eighth annual senior showcase, displayed more than 36 student teams and individual projects.

Changing their project so close to the showcase, a warmup for the contest the following week, prompted some people to questioned the team’s ability to finish the project on time or even compete.

The team ignored their critics. Instead, the encouragement from their professor and classmates, the high expectations set for them and CSUN’s department of mechanical systems engineering and management’s financial support provided them with motivation to finish and succeed.

“In February and March, a lot of students in our class didn’t believe we could finish our design [project],” said Alamri. “We changed it so many times, and we heard a lot of tough comments from the professor during the semester.”

Just hours before the competition, the team finished the robot and quickly worked out the complications with only minutes to spare. Despite being exhausted from working through the night, the team was more than ready to present their work.

CSUN’s College of Engineering and Computer Science has a history of success at the Manufacturing Challenge and Exposition contests. For the past three years, Li’s senior design students have taken home the grand prize — in 2015 with a Hybrid Layer Manufacturing 3-D printer, and in 2016 with the Cloudponics System, a cloud-controlled system that grows plants in water from the waste of farmed fish and aquatic animals which in turn purifies the water.

This year, the vision-assisted robotic arm continued the matador legacy, winning the $1,000 grand prize and the contest’s “Ray W. Rummell Leadership in Manufacturing” was awarded to Chilingarian. Shouts and cheers echoed throughout Goodwill Industries when the judges revealed the winner.

“Our team was astounded by the win,” said Chilingarian. “We were all so happy and proud of our work. It was a humbling experience.”

The competition is over, but the project’s objective is not. The project was designed to be improved upon over the next five academic years. Future engineering students will continue to develop the robotic arm and program it with new features.

“It’s humbling to work with such a great team and create something that can do a lot for the future of CSUN students,” said Schetritt. “It’s not just our project. It’ll become something greater than that.”

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