Transcending Tradition at the Bechtel Innovation Design Center

Sarah Fisher
Sarah Fisher September 28, 2021 5 min read

An existential drive common to humankind is offering the next generation a better life. This has often translated to creating a life of more convenience, more ease, and more efficiency—like owning cars instead of horses. Taking elevators and not stairs. While there may be controversy around whether this attempt at “better” has truly proven to better the world, one thing is for sure: humans are built to transcend tradition.

So why has education been slow to veer off the well-worn path? Until recently, the education industry has prided itself on the legacy and hierarchy of learning, on defining and adhering to steps a learner takes to achieve mastery of a subject. Essentially, on doing things as they have been done in the past.

Matthew Swabey

As far as educator Matthew Swabey is concerned, this is all wrong. Swabey believes in continuously reinventing how to educate students based on what the collective future needs, not what the past has dictated. This strongly influenced his accepting a position as director of the Bechtel Innovation Design Center at Purdue University.

Inaugurated in 2017, the center is a student-run facility where learners from all backgrounds and skill levels work on design and engineering projects with access to best-in-class trainings, technologies, and machines. Students from literally any discipline (yes, including you, theater majors) can access resources in electronics, CAD/CAM, machinery, 3D printing, assembly & prototyping, and welding—and a cloud library that currently supports the equipment and tooling available to students. It includes accurate, animated models of the machines and more than 160 tools and 1,300 cutting parameter presets. By offering such variety in technology to students on the spectrum of expertise, the Bechtel center embraces creativity and innovation through inclusivity. The more new technologies are made available to as many students as possible, the more access the world has to their creative prowess.

Swabey’s vision for the center was to create an at-scale, student-led ecosystem for all Purdue students to access advanced manufacturing technology. More importantly, he wanted first-time users with zero manufacturing background to be up and running in the facility, including handling machinery, within days of joining. Days. This means thoroughly equipping students who have minimal or no understanding of design and manufacturing with safety training, consultation, software and technology resources, and machine training—no easy feat. After operating for nearly four years, the center now averages about a week to get students set up and working on their projects.

Practice Makes Progress with Mistake-Proof Method

With the goal of streamlining designs and processes within the Bechtel ecosystem, Swabey trusts students to run new CNC programs at full speed due to a mistake-proof method referred to as the digital twin method. The process begins by requiring students to import models from other software into Autodesk® Fusion 360® for manufacturing. It is only populated with the models of equipment and tools available in the center and contains tried-and-true manufacturing parameters, effectively creating a digital twin of the essential parts of the machining process.

Swabey modified the post-processors and added “stops,” which give students extra time to load tools and check positioning of parts. He’s also added videos to the Haas controls so that students have access to step-by-step guides. The digital twin method was developed and perfected by staff member Anirudh Pal and a team of 32 students over 18,000 hours; much of the Bechtel Center’s success is attributed to this agile process of continual improvements. In most manufacturing programs today, the learning process is slowed by prohibiting students from using machines at capacity for fear of tool breakage. The Bechtel center leans into this complexity with ease.

An example of the digital twin method in practice involves Gabe, a sophomore at Purdue University focused on Exploratory Studies and Michael, a peer mentor who had just been hired after completed his training around five days earlier. Prior to becoming a member, Gabe had about 50 hours of experience with manual machines and understood how time-consuming and frustrating it was to set them up. Once a member, he teamed up with Michael for support. On Gabe’s first day, he decided to machine on a coupler for a specialized motor and when prompted by the CNC to check his work, he noticed the pencil tool had crashed into the stock. Together, Gabe and Michael sought Anirudh Pal’s help, pointing out that the warehouse control system (WCS) was set incorrectly.

“We were quickly able to identify that there was an extra parallel under the part that was not there in our digital twin in Fusion 360,” says Swabey. “Once they understood the problem, they added the missing parallel into the CAD model, regenerated the tool paths, and then ran successfully. The whole problem took about two minutes to identify and ten minutes explain and resolve”.

This method allowed a first-time CNC user to successfully design and build a manufacturing plan in CAM and machine on a coupler with limited peer and professional supervision. Had these safeguards not been in place, the Renishaw OMP40-2 probe would have likely crashed, costing the center $60 for the stem, $1,300 for a rebuild, and a precious 30-45 minutes of skilled technical work to reinstall a new probe. In essence, having a digital twin representing every action the CNC machine takes reduces unpredictability. And having community support along the way encourages students to embrace a process that could be easily perceived as intimidating or too complex.

Spearheading Innovation with a Student-First Mindset

Centralizing resources in a facility that operates on a first-come, first-served basis and is responsive to student needs is a great way to resource classes, students’ personal growth, entrepreneurship, and a community mindset. If Swabey’s journey inspires you to break the barriers of tradition and establish a similar design center, he’s got a few tips to share.

  1. Automate. Focus on automation. Simplify tool setup by automating the tool loading and probing process. Provide guidance to students by adding videos, images, and other media on the control, effectively creating a step-by-step guide of what the user should do. Or consider modeling the table and tools, creating a digital twin of essential parts in the machining process, which reduces collisions and crashes.
  2. Make the most out of your student community. Schools have a wealth of talent in their students—after all, who knows what challenges students face better than the students themselves? Work on integrating students into the decision-making and day-to-day running of the center.
  3. Trust students to hold each other accountable.With ownership comes responsibility. A student’s ability to instill good practices and mentorship in their peers is often more palatable than staff intervention. Students can apply healthy peer pressure and help set expectations, whereas staff all too often are forced to use the blunt tools of policies and rules.

“The whole point of design and engineering is to improve the world around us,” says Swabey. “The world of today is built on innovations over many thousands of years. The world of tomorrow is still being built. Engaging students in this process to make a better world for ourselves and our descendants is arguably the most important role society plays.”