The final senior project for students hoping to graduate from The University of Texas-Pan American's College of Engineering and Computer Science (COECS) has always generated stress for undergraduates working on their high-stakes assignments.
This year, however, the COECS added an extra challenge for a group of mechanical engineering students: their project would be to design a product for a real-life client. This is the first time the college has had its undergraduate students work for a customer as part of their senior project.
Their task was to design and build a machine that could create heating elements for Delta Heat, a Rio Hondo-based company that designs and sells heating and cooling products. The company gave $10,000 to the University to take on the project.
Working under the supervision of mechanical engineering faculty members Drs. Isaac Choutapalli, Young-Gil Park and Kamal Sarkar -- who oversees the department's senior design projects -- the students spent their senior year developing different prototypes and consulting with their customer to ensure they produced a quality project.
UTPA's students developed a device called a winding machine that uses fiberglass thread that is wrapped with copper or other type of wire. The winding machine allows Delta Heat to adjust the resistance of the heating element so it can tailor the heating elements to the needs of the products the company is making.
The students, Juan Mendiola, Adrian Delgado, Joaquin Vaca and Oscar Cantu -- known as the "Elite 4" -- took the assignment in stride.
"I was confident we could surpass his (the customer's) expectations due to the team's experience," said Mendiola, who, along with the other three team members graduated in May 2012. "Everybody in the 'Elite 4' team had internships with large companies, which clearly demonstrates their abilities as professionals."
Mendiola is continuing his education at Florida State University.
Delgado, who is now employed as an assistant project manager at TDIndustries, said the assignment helped prepare him for the responsibilities he would have to take on at his new job, such as working with other professionals, contacting vendors to learn how a product is installed and managing projects to increase earnings for the company.
"It was an awesome experience, I will never regret taking this project for my senior design," Delgado said. "I learned new skills and used a lot of engineering skills to design this machine and show it fully operational to the customer. I guess a smile from him (the customer) and the professors mean we did a good job."
The Elite 4's invention will save Delta Heating time and money, company officials said. Before, Delta Heating would have to purchase various different types of heating elements from different companies.
"It definitely helps me out a lot," said Palmira Hoos, an employee of Delta Heat who graduated from UTPA in December 2011 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. Hoos designs flexible heating circuits for customers among other tasks.
Her boss, Carlos Cardenas, owner of Delta Heat, said he was pleased with the student's finished product.
"They far exceeded my expectations," he said. "They made a heck of a design."
Cardenas said UT Pan American has become a great resource for his company, as they will continue to work together. The students created two machines: one for Delta Heat to take and begin making heating elements, the other for faculty members to continue working on perfecting their invention.
"I can't believe you all don't have people waiting in line here" to work with UTPA faculty, staff and students, he said.
Cardenas said he also suspects he will be able to hire more employees as he expects his company will grow, thanks in part to UTPA.
Sarkar said he hopes UTPA's relationship with Delta Heat will be the first of many the University forms with area entrepreneurs.
"The real advantage of this proposal is that we're helping the local entrepreneurs to develop something so they can survive and prosper," he said. "Equally important is that we are creating local jobs for our students."