Training our Mechanical Engineers to use Arduinos

Published on: 11th April 2022

DCA’s multidisciplinary ethos has never been more relevant, with the majority of our development projects requiring us to combine mechanical engineering, electronics and software to deliver integrated system solutions. As a result, our mechanical engineers not only need an excellent understanding of fundamental engineering theory, they also need a good grounding in electronics and software. This not only improves understanding, communication and team working when they are working alongside our specialist electronics and software teams on multidisciplinary projects. It also means that they are able to design, build and test the Proof of Principle (PoP) rigs that form an integral part of our development process and will, almost inevitably, have an Arduino compatible microcontroller at their core. 

When engineering graduates or placement students join us their exposure to microcontrollers and embedded software will vary depending on the nature of their course, the project work they have undertaken, and any industrial placement experience they may have gained. Some will never have used the Arduino platform before. Others will have some experience, but will typically only have written basic code that controls one or two components.

So Arduino programming is now an integral part of our induction training for engineering graduates and 12-month placement students. New starters are issued with an Arduino development board and an extensive development kit. They are then asked to work through a series of carefully selected on-line training exercises individually that allow them to build their knowledge and skills at a pace that suits them and aligns with their previous experience. However, the fun and excitement really begins when we ask them to complete a team project that tests what they have learned and requires them to apply and develop their new found knowledge to a complex real world problem.

In the group project run at the end of last year the challenge was to create a desk security ‘robot’. Inspired by the COVID control measures we had in place at that time, which prohibited desk sharing, the security system was required to monitor the area to determine whether a person was approaching the desk. If the person was the authorised desk user, they were able to disarm the system, but if they failed to do so within the prescribed time limit, the ‘robot’ would accurately calculate the location of the unauthorised occupant and launch a deterrent.

The system contained:

  • A passive infrared sensor to initially sense a person approaching the desk
  • A stepper motor moving an ultrasonic sensor to measure the proximity and location of the potential intruder
  • An RFID sensor and PIN pad to allow the authorised user to disarm the system
  • An LCD screen to provide user instructions
  • A second stepper motor to aim the deterrent at the intruder
  • A DC motor, fan and LED to play the part of a deterrent

This electronic hardware was mounted within an open framework assembled from flat laser cut panels. The resulting code had to be carefully planned and structured so that individual members of the team could be responsible for the development of particular functions such as handling false alarms or identifying a failure to disarm the system in time.

With the functionality of the original system proven, one member of the team took it upon themselves to up the ante by replacing the fan with a somewhat more effective deterrent. This automatic reloading mechanism was prototyped using DCA’s in-house Rapid Prototyping facilities and used the DC motor to propel small balls at the unauthorised intruder.

James Rawlings, a member of the project team commented, “The team found it a really fun and stimulating project. Collaborating to create a prototype used skills that we can transfer to client PoP rigs. It was also a great way to get to know more people throughout DCA, especially at a time when interactions were limited because of COVID measures. The project allowed us to develop our coding skills much further than any tutorials could have achieved, and taught us how to structure and integrate code from different individuals to deliver a complex system that can react to a wide range of different inputs to deliver the appropriate outputs.”

While our experienced electronics and software engineers continue to develop and deliver solutions for a wide range of complex systems and connected products, there is no doubt that providing our graduate mechanical engineers with a grounded understanding of these skills means that they will be better able to support the development of the multidisciplinary solutions that our clients increasingly require.