COE Mechanical Engineering Professor Canfield Receives iCorps Award
A team led by Tennessee Tech University mechanical engineering professor Stephen Canfield has been researching and developing autonomous robots for industrial applications for years. For Canfield, mentor Andy Pardue and entrepreneurial lead Andrew Bryant that work has paid off in the form of a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s iCorps program. iCorps gives entrepreneurs a chance to leverage their experience and expertise into developing products that will find their place in the market.
When a boiler wall fails, it’s a huge problem that can cost a company millions of dollars in labor, repairs, down time and lost productivity – and boilers fail at a rate of 3 to 5 percent per year. Canfield’s robots are designed to inspect and weld boilers, ships and other large steel structures.
“Our starting point for this technology was a positioning sensor, like a GPS device for industrial uses. We’re calling it the Mobi-Pos,” said Canfield. “It gives the robot a way to know where it is, as well as helping the operator control it. As part of the inspection process, this is something that can allow for accurate measurements without involving workers with a tape measure and chalk line. It combines data collection with a mobile positioning system.”
TTU’s team was grouped with teams from more than 20 universities, including Stanford, University of Michigan, Brown University, Virginia Tech and Berkeley. TTU’s team won the “Best Team of the Cohort” award.
Part of the NSF iCorps selection is based on a model of potential customers for a product. Canfield and his team have targeted nondestructive testing providers and in-field inspection customers, and solidified those relationships with strong technical and field support and a presence at trade shows.
“Automating the inspection process would have numerous benefits,” said Canfield. “It reduces measuring error, increases efficiency, creates denser data sets, cuts labor costs and, in the end, means faster generation of inspection reports. Considering what’s at stake in the event of a boiler failure, we think this should be a pretty appealing package to potential customers.”
Canfield and his team expect to work on strategic alliances, refine the product development process with further testing, and work to bring the Mobi-Pos sensor unit to commercial production and sales.
“Our product did change a lot in this process,” said Canfield. “We do feel that we’ve identified a customer that has a strong need for this technology, and that’s been validated through a number of face-to-face interviews. We’re still a pilot company, a start-up, but we feel we’re at a good place where we can move ahead on this.”