Collaborating with Caterpillar

When four engineering students began their senior design project in 2005, they had no idea their class project would become a learning tool for numerous students for many years. 

However, Professor David Zietlow of the Mechanical Engineering Department saw the project as an opportunity
to engage students in hands-on research. Collaborating with Steve Gutschlag, a professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, the two began the project as a partnership study with Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc., the world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, diesel and natural gas engines, industrial gas turbines, and diesel electric locomotives. 

The project’s purpose is to predict when boiling occurs in diesel engine cooling systems. The main goals of the study are to increase the reliability of the equipment and reduce pollutants emitted from diesel engines. Boiling within the diesel engine’s cooling system can cause damage to components and decrease the life
of the system. Being able to predict when boiling will occur before it happens would be a useful tool in cooling system design. The improved design would be environmentally friendly and cost effective.

As students work with professors to produce advances toward a new heat exchanger design tool, they also learn to predict, evaluate, and perfect testing procedures to produce outcomes that can be more accurately read and interpreted. Environmental movements over the last 10 years have pushed industry standards to a new level.

Every year since its conception, professors Zietlow and Gutschlag hire summer interns to work on the project, and one or two students to follow the research throughout the school year. The equipment has undergone many updates and modifications through the past five years as the team discovers new information from the various tests and studies. In fact, due to the advances in research and development of technology, only a few original components are still part of the equipment today.  

Emily Wolffe, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, joined professors Zietlow and Gutschlag on this project over the past two summers. “Working on this project was one of the best opportunities I could have asked for,” Wolffe says. “I was able to get hands-on experience in a field that will become my career in a few short years. From collecting and analyzing data, to writing technical manuals, even to building and soldering a heat exchanger, there was never a boring day. All of my experiences working on the project have taught me more about thermodynamics, heat transfer, and fluid flow than any textbook ever could.”

Professors Zietlow and Gutschlag couldn’t agree more. Both say the most enjoyable part of the project is the opportunity to work with students and teach them more about their area of study. It really is a valuable experience for both the professors and the students, who are preparing to work in the real world and to learn how to solve practical engineering problems.