Author Archives: Ahijit Banerjee

Making Rocket Components – The Capstone Experience

The entire educational experience in MECH and APSC is geared toward preparing for your capstone project. It feels like from the early MECH days, right up to and including capstone are focused on preparing us to work alongside a client to try and create something of value. For my capstone, I worked with UBC Rocket to help design the main parachute release mechanism for their sounding rocket. The things we missed out on by working with a UBC-specific client were quite quickly offset by the uniqueness of the experience itself.

A common method of triggering systems with high reliability is using pyrotechnic charges. I had never worked with explosives before or performed analyses regarding them, but more about that later! Capstone is a full eight-month project where we work with an actual client to figure out the scope and deliverables for the project. Fortunately, capstone is divided up into smaller segments to ensure that they are more manageable.

The early parts of the project were probably one of the most important phases of the project – figuring out the scope. A common trend I’ve seen with more open-ended problems is scope creep, which is when things get added to your to-do list that you didn’t initially agree to. To try and avoid this from happening to our team as well, we tried to meet with the client as often as we could during the earlier stages and kept them updated on every progress the team made over the first few weeks. Fortunately, we were able to avoid it through complete transparency with the client on what we can and cannot do along with recognizing what skillsets exist within them and which ones do not.

Now that we could work on the fun part of the project, it had two main functions- releasing successfully when signalled and carrying the weight of the rocket once it had been released. But as we started figuring out what concept alternatives we had, there was that all-familiar feeling that we are already weeks behind. Preliminary prototype testing results were due in about a week or so and we weren’t close to having a good set of concept alternatives, let alone having completed the WDM to make a proof of concept prototype of our leading concept. Once again we had to make sure rapid prototyping was rapid. We went on a team scavenger hunt to gather scrap materials for the prototype.

Prototype version 1

It was probably while machining the prototype for the first time did it the seriousness of our analysis hit me. We had chosen a type of machine called a tender descender while engaged using a small pyrotechnic explosion, so basically our very rapid prototype had to be structurally sound enough to contain a small explosion as intended to ensure that no one gets hurt. It was a weird feeling because I hadn’t worked with anything before that could potentially affect someone’s safety and well-being if my calculations were not done properly. It is an important thing to realize the impact our work sometimes has and not only on ourselves but also those who would be interacting with it at the end of the day. Well the prototype did end up working, but during testing the pressure seal on our concept was not satisfactory so we ended up using bubblegum to seal the pressure chamber.

Prototype version 2

It would be somewhat ideal if the final concept that the client paid for didn’t use half-chewed bubblegum to work. So for the next few iterations, the design used two concentric cylinders to create the pressure chamber. Once we were confident the design was reliable and worked as intended, we began optimizing it for manufacturability, assembly and weight. We improved the ease of assembly by having symmetrical parts and reducing the number of components required; ease of manufacturability was also improved when we had symmetrical parts so multiple components could be made on the same setup. Weight was probably one of the harder things to reduce, since our concept was small to begin with, reducing a few grams would add up to a noticeable percentage. The most effective method of reducing weight was selecting the correct materials for each of the components; parts that did not need to be steel shouldn’t be steel was the basic idea and that itself helped reduce the overall weight by 40%.

Prototype version 3

Testing the prototypes was so much fun! Filling them with black powder and arming them with an electronic match definitely did give me the chills but by the 20th test having no incidents or misfires we started to have some confidence in our loading procedure. So we completed three types of tests – a no load release test, a full load hold test and a full load release test. The tests were performed in order of increasing risk so failure modes could be detected early on and addressed to potentially mitigate the risk of a high-severity test failing unexpectedly.

For our no-load release test, we were testing to quantify the reliability of the prototypes and understand the limits for the minimum amount of black powder required in this system. The full load hold test was intended to verify the load-bearing capacity of the concept, as during flight it is expected to take the full weight of the rocket. For this test, we hung 75 kgs from the 60g concept for over 20 minutes. Finally, for the full load release test we tested to see if the prototype could hold over 50kgs and release successfully when signalled. This test would be the most representative of what would be seen in an actual rocket in terms of the sequence of actions performed and we used this as a final validation test for our prototype.

Overall it was an enriching experience, and as I wrap up the final few documents for the course, it really does feel like the end of a marathon. There were a few long weeks, but seeing our prototype evolve over the weeks truly made it all worth it. Each step along the way was an uncomfortable realization that we could have done things better and getting them done so we didn’t have regrets while handing the project over to our client. From getting our project brief in September to handing over the final concept, it has been one memorable journey!

Making the most out of your co-op experience

So here we are with our first co-op position using the advice given by my previous MECH ambassadors! Like anything else, being able to put your best foot forward always helps. Over my five co-op terms, I’ve noticed that the mindset to make the most of your co-op more or less remains the same.

Keeping an open mind

It rarely happens that we get our dream job as our first co-op, and that’s perfectly alright. Any experience is helpful even if we can’t figure out how immediately – “Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

My very first co-op was with a client-facing software position. As a second-year Mechanical engineer, I didn’t know how working in software would help. But the experience I got working with clients here was essential to my ability to negotiate and collaborate with other engineering teams and suppliers. Similarly, there were always tasks that needed to be completed to keep the lights on, like tabulating data or creating operating procedure documents. Working on processing the raw data usually gave me an insight into the workings of processes that I wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise. In the majority of my co-ops, I found my term project by identifying quirks in data that would have been unattended otherwise.

Dress like the person you want to be

Most engineering jobs do not have a set dress code, but being appropriately dressed never goes unnoticed. It might be a bit clichéd, but first impressions make a difference! Sometimes being dressed for the job you want is the easiest way to show that you’re interested in the work that you’re doing.

Don’t be afraid to take initiatives

I think this was one of my more revolutionary revelations – our supervisors and mentors are human too. 

Till that realization dawned upon me, I was always a bit more nervous than I should have been and second-guessed myself before contributing to discussions. It might take a week or so to settle into the team, but it’s helpful to remember that they wanted you on the team, so you shouldn’t second guess yourself in a position that you’ve earned!

There are always more things that need to be done at a workplace than there is time to do them. If something catches your eye and you want to look into it, do it! It’s a valuable experience to identify potential projects and see them through. I’ve always found supervisors supportive of projects you want to undertake provided your regular responsibilities are looked after.

Connecting with People

One of the most exciting things about co-op is meeting several individuals with similar engineering interests. Apart from gaining friends and getting to know people from all over the company, learning more about the various departments and the types of challenges they undertake is always helpful.

Co-op is an opportunity to try out different types of positions and industries at a lower risk compared to a full-time job. Starting it’s hard to know where you’d be four to five years down the road. So trying to make the most out of the opportunities that come to you might help you eventually decide where you want to be and where you don’t.

Student Experiences

The Department of Mechanical Engineering houses several sub-specializations, and the difference between them isn’t always clear when choosing a program in the first year. Around the end of 2022, we had a student experiences panel with upper-year MECH students from each specialization to answer questions and try to demystify the program. Here are a few things they to say!

But before we get started here are our panelists:

  • Janet Sun – Mechatronics
  • Ahijit Banerjee – Thermofluids
  • Phoebe Cheung – Biomedical

Why did you choose MECH?

Janet: I have always been very interested in robotics and how things move the way that they do, I am now furthering my studies with a Master’s in Kinematically Redundant Parallel Robots which is very exciting. My choice stemmed from pure interest and curiosity, wanting to know the why and how behind mechanical movements in addition to what I could do to control those motions. Hence, I have specialized in Mechatronics which was also a factor as to why I chose MECH.

Ahijit: I come from an ECE and CS-dominated background and I was naturally inclined towards it from a young age. But during my first year here, I loved the hands-on projects we had – building the cardboard chair and seeing it support 17 sandbags or the metal claw trying its best to pieces of pasta from the floor. I hadn’t had much exposure to hands-on projects prior to coming to UBC, but I knew I wanted much more and that’s why I choose MECH.

Phoebe: Back in the first year, I was introduced to the concept of biomechanics, and the synergy between mechanical and biomedical engineering quickly became something I was interested in learning more about. Through the First Year Program Fair and the Mechanical Engineering First Year Networking Event, I had the opportunity to learn more about MECH and talk to current students about their experiences. As MECH offers a biomedical specialization, I discovered that a MECH degree would be the best choice for where my interests lie. I wanted a strong foundation in a core engineering discipline while still being able to gain experience in the biomedical industry. My goal was to build my toolbox of skills and knowledge through my degree to be able to design and develop medical devices in my future career.

Opportunities in the program

Janet: There are so many various way to be involved. Either through design team, student council, work learn positions in the mech offices, volunteering in labs or joining various clubs on campus. There are infinite ways of enriching your degree. If you would like to gain technical experience, joining a design team would be the best way to apply what you learn in the classroom to a tangible project and also allow you to polish those team working skills. During my time on both SUBC and Orbit, I have really enjoyed watching our design concept come to life with the combined efforts of the entire team. If you would like to develop professionally and or practice your interpersonal skills while taking on a leadership role, I highly encourage you to apply as a work learn student or join the mechanical engineering student council. I have been part of the council since my second year, having taken on roles such as 2nd Year Rep, Academic Rep, Secretary, and my two terms as President. These roles have taught me so much and I enjoyed being able to work closely with an amazing supportive team to ensure that all mechanical engineering students have access to a wide array of social, academic and professional development opportunities. I was also fortunate to be able to take on a few work learn positions during my undergraduate career and it was a really nice way of improving my soft skills such as technical communications. Being a work learn student gave me so many more opportunities to interact with staff, faculty and also incoming students. From my various roles in the department, I was able to interact with profs and I was able to volunteer in the CARIS lab working on a really cool controls project leading me to my master’s degree. There are so many opportunities that may creep up on you without you even knowing.

Ahijit: MECH has several opportunities for students to get involved outside of classes, the most common being design teams. Working on larger projects with technical and non-technical folks with different backgrounds is some of my favourite and most exciting moments in school. They helped me develop my technical and communication skills, and it is a fun way to meet new people.

The department is also very supportive of undergraduate research. MECH has the CREATE-U program exclusively for MECH students interested in research, I had initially asked my professor if they had any opportunities in their lab for an undergrad student, and I was able to complete a co-op term at their lab through this program. The department also has paid opportunities like teaching assistantships and work-learns. I found the time I spend TA’ing or helping out with work learn tasks to be a refreshing change from the technical projects and a way to give back to the community.

Phoebe: In addition to coursework, I had a multitude of opportunities to gain experience outside of the classroom. One of the highlights of my degree would be my time on UBC AeroDesign. It was my first time working on a large-scale team project, and it was very rewarding to watch our airplane take off for the very first time! In addition to the technical experience, I’ve also gained experience with project management during my time as Team Captain. Navigating the team through the pandemic and the transition back to in-person work was a unique challenge, and it has undoubtedly taught me important leadership and communication skills.

The MECH Community

Janet: One of my passions is to build community and as such I have taken up roles such as Mech Prez and Residence Advisor. I really enjoy hosting events and bringing people together through common interests and providing opportunities for skill development. The mechanical engineering community is very diverse, with students from vastly different backgrounds but we all come together under CEME or Rusty working on our projects, labs or course work knowing that our classmates will always lend a hand to help when they can.

Ahijit: The MECH community is a tightly knit one. Starting from the days of MECH 2, we see each other all the time from classes during the week and at design teams over the weekends. But it’s the days when things don’t go according to plan or it’s the day before the competition and we’re still at Home Depot picking up parts, is when I made my closest friends whom I knew I could count on. Alongside seeing everyone for school nearly every day, club MECH hosts events frequently that are an amazing opportunity to detox and relax.

Phoebe: Although 2nd year (“MECH2”) is as challenging as every upper-year MECH student claims, reflecting back on it now, it has certainly helped me build a strong academic foundation and become a better future engineer. The variety of courses and labs allowed me to get a taste of what mechanical engineering has to offer for the rest of my undergraduate degree. Because of its rigour, MECH2 has also allowed me to learn how to better manage my time and prioritize my tasks. The overall MECH community is also very welcoming, which allowed me to build a strong support system of peers and professors.

Additional Comments

Janet: Being involved in not only the mechanical engineering community but also the greater engineering community to show our mech pride has been a highlight of my undergraduate career. From winning E-week this year with all the hard work from very dedicated and committed mech community to competing in the ball model in my second year with a small group of friends. We went from design conception to sourcing materials and building the overall contraption. I was finally able to realize my dream of building a claw machine. I am super thankful for my friends joining my team and their dedication to the project. There is nothing quite like building something from scratch, getting your fingers superglued onto the project and getting a burn from the activator. This experience will forever be engrained in my memory as a very stressful but thrilling time.

My summer research program with MECH CREATE-U

Walking past the closed doors of research labs felt like taking a peek into a vault of unfound knowledge with students and mentors huddled around what oftentimes looked like a sci-fi device. The sight has always fascinated me, and I wanted to try it out and see what research is without committing my entire Master’s degree to it. The CREATE-U project was helpful in addressing this, where I could get a taste of what research is like so that I could figure out if I wanted it or not in the future.


Poster presentation at the end of the CREATE-U program

One of the biggest questions I had starting off is how a research project is different from the numerous design projects we’ve undertaken during our regular coursework. We’ve all had a taste of what an engineering project is like starting with the cardboard chair – we have a known deliverable and we try to make our way to it through a defined process – but my research experience was quite different.

Unlike a design project, the final deliverable is left to us to choose. I initially thought that would make it simpler – what I didn’t expect was the number of rabbit holes it would open up during the first few weeks as I tried to figure out what direction I wanted my project to take. It was an exciting, overwhelming feeling when every new paper I read gave me a new idea of what I could do as a part of my project. I ended up deciding on studying the flow characteristics of aerosolized powder drugs flowing through a catheter under the overarching project that my faculty supervisor had given me and the Master’s student mentoring me. Okay, that sounds like a lot of words that probably doesn’t make too much sense. Well, it didn’t to me either, but that’s part of the fun and the process! Starting off and learning something new that you haven’t seen before and then trying to ask and answer questions that might not have been covered. Over a few weeks, I’d taken my basic knowledge of fluid mechanics and used those basic building blocks to learn about multiphase flow and a few other things to be able to take this problem head-on.

We also had regularly scheduled classes where we talked about research practices and writing styles, and initially, I thought that would just be adding more to my plate of responsibilities. However, getting some context around my research work was immensely helpful in orienting myself through the process, as well as knowing I wasn’t alone in it with the nine of us in the cohort getting to bounce ideas off each other. There were quite a few weeks where it was busier than I thought it would be with both coursework and research work picking up pace simultaneously. It all paid off with excitement of designing my own experimental setup, assembling it and then running experiments to answer a question that I found worth investigating! It was also a very weird and proud feeling when I had to present my findings in front of research faculty members – and for once I knew a little bit more about the topic than they did.