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'We really needed some expertise': Buellton business puts high school robotics team to work

'We really needed some expertise': Buellton business puts high school robotics team to work

From the What you need to know: A recap of this week's top headlines series

Watching the wire clippings accumulate inside of a clear paperclip holder, Vasilios Gogonis, 17, a Santa Ynez Valley Union High School robotics student, explained the complex interworking of his team's recently completed project.

Rather than accept the fate of a canceled 2020 world robotics competition season caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a small group of students from the school's robotics team, SYVUHS MechaPirates 5136, decided to embark on a new challenge: engineering a "reciprocating cycle linear actuator"— a wire-cutting machine designed to test the durability of a blade — for local company Excelta.

"Our main issue was trying to figure out how to make it interchangeable," said Vasilios, pointing to the adjustable molding cradling a set of high-precision pliers that were clipping off wire bits at a 1/2 second per cut. "We had to find the sweet spot where a different-sized tool could fit it — long handle or short handle."

With a push of a button located on a repurposed video game controller, the programmed machine set in motion two small motors — a reused printer motor causing an arm-like mechanism to move back and forth, forcing the tool being tested to open and close; and another motor driving small portions of wire through the mouth of the tool that, then, made small, continuous cuts.

The machine, which features an LCD display counter, was programmed to make 10,000 cuts in a cycle which, according to Vasilios, could be easily changed to 100,000 or a million wire cuts based on the required testing run.

"This can apply to big factories — you can make machines that make car parts or airplane parts," said the senior, referring to his plans to pursue aerospace engineering. "I think this is very applicable to life."

A simple task

David Watkins, a manager at Excelta in Buellton, and whose son, Ben, is a SYVUHS junior and member of the MechaPirates, approached the team in early July with a real problem that required a long-term solution.

"This was a project we really needed some expertise on," Watkins said. "So I gave them all the specs."

Before selling its hundreds of precision tools, the 62-year-old company first must test the blades on each product in order to render it guaranteed. The test performed reveals the number of cuts the tool can make on different types of wire before it breaks down.

However, the problem was that Excelta had become dependent on an older, less-streamlined model to perform the testing, and further, sometimes had to send product to outside testing companies, as far away as Texas, for review.

"We needed something easier and simpler to use," said Watkins, looking to the simplified student-engineered machine that will become a permanent fixture at Excelta. "It looks simple, but we have different tools and different sizes, and they've engineered this so it will accept most of our tools. There's a lot of engineering to make something that's going to run over 100,000 cycles. There's so much going on there."

Led by robotics instructor Sandy Slobig and parent mentors David Ovesen, Alex Koslov and Kevin Sparkman, the group of five students gathered at the high school robotics lab approximately 10 hours each week over the course of 2 1/2 months and successfully completed all project research, design and construction phases.

"It was a great opportunity in this time to have them get together and work productively on a goal," said Slobig, a math instructor, as well as a robotics instructor for nearly six years. "It was really important to get their minds going again."

Describing the process, Slobig said that although it was likely her group's most complex project yet, the adults stood back and let the young engineers devise a solution and the list of materials to be used.

"We let them fail and let them redo things," she said. "If we gave them all the information, then they're just building something. We totally let them design it and build it."

Ovesen, an explosives safety specialist at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and parent of Noah, said the quick progress made was fascinating to witness. 

"It's amazing what the kids came up with because where it ended up is not what I thought we would end up with," he said. "Their young minds are the ones that need to be building stuff. I don't think enough people build stuff anymore in our country, and this is a great way to learn science, technology, math and engineering. This really was the perfect opportunity for them to figure it all out on their own."

Sixteen-year-old Noah said more than anything it was great to be back in the lab with his friends.

"The team most enjoyed the project because during the lockdown we really couldn't see each other," he said. "But then we had an excuse to do something together and, also, give back to the community. It feels good when something actually works. It's really a culmination of everyone's efforts."

Prior to the build, a complex series of 3-D models were designed by 17-year-old senior Ian Palmer, who explained that the created mockup was in essence a blueprint necessary to planning and programming the machine. 

"I'm pretty excited that it's being used — and it was very nice to see these guys again," he said, looking to his teammates and, then, the wire cutters steadily in action. "We made a robot for last year's competition and just two days before [the competition], we were in lockdown."

As a reward for their time and effort, Watkins presented the robotics program with a $1,000 check on behalf of Excelta, which will help fund future team projects.

"Our engineers have come out and taken a look at it and can't wait to get their hands on it," said Watson, noting that once in-house, the machine will be set inside a durable metal casing. "I'm proud as any dad can be."

Lisa André covers local news and lifestyles for Santa Ynez Valley News. 

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