September 29, 2004

Engineering professor helps students learn as they build

Specialized parts aren’t the only things coming out of Akihiko Kumagai’s lab.

The mechanical engineering professor is also turning out specialized graduates – engineers able to marry machines to computers so machines can work smarter. The students utilize both mechanical and electronic engineering, areas that are usually taught separately.

“There’s a growing demand for machines that are controlled by electronics and computers,” Kumagai says. “So teaching students to combine mechanical and electronic engineering gives them a big advantage in their careers.”

For the most part, the teaching takes place in a lab Kumagai has equipped over his first four years at Sacramento State.

The most current projects are an automated liquid handling system and an inexpensive way to manufacture a water pasteurization indicator.

Two graduate students have been working on the liquid handling system for scientific labs, which transfers liquid from a reservoir to 96 well plates. Such automation has been getting more attention in scientific labs, and Kumagai says it has the potential to make them much more efficient.

It’s exactly the sort of project Kumagai seeks for his students. Better yet, it was funded by Reflect Scientific, which plans to bring the final product to market.

Kumagai usually has three to five graduate students working with him on similar projects. He is also the faculty advisor for the student Formula SAE club, in which students design and build a formula-style race car, the student Competitive Robotics club and Sacramento State’s chapter of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. With all the students, he stresses the need for practical, usable products.

“Many things will work well for five minutes or so, and then break. The challenge is building something that is reliable and will last a long time – and of course that’s our goal,” he says.

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