The Foundry provides dedicated spaces for clubs and other students groups, as well as collaborative space for other projects
The Foundry provides dedicated spaces for clubs and other students groups, as well as collaborative space for other projects

A Mechanical Room Becomes an Innovation Hub

Embedded in an old basement in the revived Gross Hall, The Foundry is the latest example of Duke's innovation
October 12, 2015
Students learn how to solder at the Foundry.

Gone is the forbidden zone in the depths of that unloved edifice, the recently renovated, relabeled, and revived Gross Hall. The onetime mechanical room—all 7,600 square feet of it—hasn’t completely lost its pipes, tubes, and overall rough industrial look. Only now it’s filled with light—and pretty much whatever can be cooked up and spun out of its optics and electronics shops, machining tools, workbenches, rooms for teaching and meeting, and short- and long-term project spaces.

In grander terms, the Foundry embraces an idea that’s long been building: Students want to do cool things that put their learning to work—and, at the same time, to make a difference. One product of the Foundry is a particular student vocabulary: “human-centered design,” “social impact,” and thinking outside that ever-restrictive metaphorical “box.”

The speaker at the official opening event, in early September, was George Truskey, the Pratt School’s interim dean. He says the Foundry is intended for all student teams (and not just teams of engineering students) who need space to build something, whether for a competition or a start-up. “You can learn about energy efficiency in class or a lab,” he says. “But you don’t fully understand all the tradeoffs until you take a year building, for example, an electric vehicle or a solar-powered car.”

In its past guise, the Foundry space—with all those water chillers, air handlers, and equipment of indeterminate pedigree or purpose—was “a mess,” as the lead architect for the project, Lauren Dunn Rockart, bluntly puts it. (She’s with the Raleigh-based firm Lord Aeck Sargent.) “It took a big leap of faith on the part of Duke’s leadership to allow this transformation to happen.”

The vision that sparked the big leap, she adds, was “to use this ‘found’ space to create a facility currently missing on campus,” a place that would be “intentionally open and transparent.” Students could tinker, explore, and learn from others, the underpinnings of a community of innovators. Rockart says many universities are starting to incorporate “maker-space” on their campuses. Stanford, for example, has its “d.school,” a “hub for innovators” that, as the website describes it in somewhat wonky language,is geared to “students with a methodology for innovation that combines creative and analytical approaches, and requires collaboration across disciplines.”

One hard-to-miss innovation at the Foundry’s opening event was a giant robotic drink mixer, courtesy of a Foundry tenant, Duke’s branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The mixer is a feat of precision engineering: three acrylic towers—which took more than 100 hours to cut—containing more than 300 multicolored LEDS that can be programmed to change color. The towers are placed around a platform that can hold up to five different drink ingredients. The group’s impressively titled “senior adviser” is Zachary Bears, a double-major in electrical and computer engineering and computer science. He explains that an app allows the user to order three drinks at a time from any combination of the five ingredients. The student designers added a fountain at the front of the platform, “for added aesthetics.”

Bears says the IEEE has taken on “a lot of fun projects,” including, for a competition, robots that can shoot Nerf darts through a basketball hoop. Forthcoming creations will feed off the Internet of Things, which he describes as “sticking embedded systems into places where they aren’t traditionally found and connecting them via the Internet.” Dorms are one of those places: Dorm-door openers, using facial-recognition software, will allow in only approved individuals. An automated system, in sync with Google Calendar, will open window blinds to gently wake a dorm-room’s inhabitants.

A fellow inhabitant of the Foundry calls itself DukeMakers. Can plastic be cute? If so, DukeMakers would earn cuteness credits with its plastic blue 3D-printed Duke Chapel. It’s considerably miniaturized from the original—though, unlike the original, it’s not currently enveloped in scaffolding. 3D printing is an additive manufacturing technology that constructs an object layer by layer, explains the group’s co-president, Adarsh Ettyreddy.

In 2014, its very first year, DukeMakers, working with other groups on campus, created a prosthetic hand for an eleven-year-old boy from Durham. The boy’s hand was underdeveloped—a palm, but no fingers. The students were able to slash the price of a customized functioning prosthetic hand from thousands of dollars to less than fifty dollars. “Our goal now is to make Duke a 3D-printed prosthetics hub,” says Ettyreddy. In their Foundry space, members will dream up prototypes, debate different designs, create 3D models with different software, work with electronics, play with sensors, and, of course, 3D print. “Our club is all about making cool things, and that spans electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, biology, and art.”

Ettyreddy, a sophomore, anticipates the serendipity of unplanned Foundry interactions—“creative collisions,” to employ the term of the moment: “What we really like is having similarly curious and productive neighbors who we might share tools, ideas, and future projects with.”

Neatly labeled piles point to the productivity of one Foundry neighbor, Duke Robotics: “bearings,” “probes,” “leads,” “alligator clips,” “miscellaneous wire,” all the banal components that go into creating underwater autonomous rovers. Like any would-be sentient being, each RoboSub has a name: Charybdis, Gamera, Scylla, fictional monsters out of ancient Greece and Japan. Will Stewart, vice president for engineering for Duke Robotics, describes them variously as a UFO-like saucer, a pseudo-jellyfish, a torpedo with wings. It’s robotic evolution, sparked by intelligent student design.

Stewart, a junior electrical and computer engineering major, says the club will use its Foundry quarters to support student teams. They’ll configure the computer codes, design the vehicle, develop and test prototypes, and refine everything to create a competition-worthy robot—one that can operate without the thinking power of a human driver, and that can survive without giving in to water pressure.

The tryout site is a Duke pool; the national competition is in a naval test pool in San Diego. According to Stewart, “It’s basically an underwater obstacle course with various tasks to be completed, like dropping a payload into a bin, shooting a torpedo through a goal, driving the bot through a hoop, locating an ultrasonic pinger, or manipulating other objects underwater.”

Human drivers are, at least for now, part of the program for Duke Electric Vehicles, a fellow Foundry occupant. Its space has a garage door, a loading bay, a fume hood, and overhead power outlets. For the Foundry’s opening day, it had on display several trophies and some spiffy, streamlined racing vehicles decorated with Blue Devil stickers (some of them monster-sized and custom-printed). Its president, Charlie Kritzmacher, says, “By broadcasting the capabilities of electric vehicles to the world, we hope to inspire everyone from car owners to carmakers to dream of more sustainable transportation.”

Like their robot-minded peers, Kritzmacher’s group comes together around a competition; for them it’s the Shell Eco-Marathon, most recently held in Detroit. Their vehicles look like the love child of a basic road bike and an Apollo-era Atlas rocket. The competition is split into two categories, prototype and urban concept. It’s further split by fuel type—gasoline, diesel, bio-fuels, battery-electric, and hydrogen. For each category and fuel subset, the team that uses the least amount of energy in completing a six-mile track wins.

A senior, Kritzmacher is majoring in mechanical engineering. He comes across as hard-driving, with interests ranging from the environment to cars and motorcycles. That passion to perform extends to DEV’s work with computer-aided design, metal machining, composite production, and workplace safety. Thinking about an efficient vehicle, he says, involves such factors as aerodynamics, weight, and friction, all of which means employing such exotic materials as carbon-fiber reinforced polymers.

Of course, the driver makes a (non-exotic) material contribution. As a freshman, longtime driver Cynthia Bai, now a senior, found herself “having a quarter-life crisis over my major”; she joined the club to confirm that mechanical engineering was right for her. “Also they were looking for a driver who was short and skinny enough to fit into the car. So I thought, wow, that’s totally me.”

Bai has driven three Duke vehicles in the Shell competition, each of them presenting different challenges: They can be demanding in terms of turning radius and visibility. And on the track, “other drivers will make sudden moves or drive into your line, forcing you to make quick judgments without using your brake—since every time you use the brake, you’re losing efficiency.”

“Other than that,” as she puts it, “the car is pretty much just as claustrophobic and bumpy every year.” Her hard-driving tenaciousness demonstrates a basic truth preserved in the Foundry: Cool student space won't go the distance without committed students.

 

  • As editor, Bliwise has overall responsibility for editorial direction and content and for representing the magazine to its various constituencies. He also teaches a seminar in magazine journalism through Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.