Zach Fadness

learner, engineer, designer

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About Me

For the past couple years I have been utilizing a mechanical engineering degree as a maintenance engineer at Hormel Foods, which I talk more about below. Before that I attended the University of Minnesota where I studied mechanical engineering and product design. The product design minor was a result of feeling I wasn't getting enough hands on experience in the mechanical engineering curriculum. Participating in Toy Product Design, a class demonstrating the design process by developing a final prototype toy in a semester, was really a turning point in my education. It gave me the confidence to diverge from the well worn path of focusing solely on mechanical engineering and develop a wide range of skills in varying fields.

One of my design professors described it well, saying it is a 'T' type of education, where you gain a surface knowledge of many topics, but you dive deep and are specialized in one area. The combination makes a very valuable skill set. I interviewed that professor as part of a series called Fresh Cuts, which I describe in more detail below. This Medium article is also relevant.

My resume is below. You can also download the pdf.

Hormel - Maintenance Engineer

Case Study #1

In January 2015 I started working full time for Hormel in Austin, MN as a maintenance engineer following graduation from the University of Minnesota. Prior to working for them full time, I spent six months in Fremont, NE and three months in Rochelle, IL working through internships within the engineering department.

Throughout my time with Hormel I have overseen maintenance activities for utilities, including refrigeration, compressed air, and steam systems, and most recently maintenance overnight in food production areas. Normal responsibilities include managing craftspeople and scheduling routine maintenance on machinery, as well as responding to and repairing breakdowns. I have also taken part in projects involving upgrades to our refrigeration and steam systems.

Over the past couple years I have received a number of certifications relating to my job responsibilities at Hormel. These include becoming a Certified Assistant Refrigeration Operator from RETA and a Machinery Lubrication Technician I from ICML.

Echo - Toy Product Design

Case Study #2

As mentioned above, Toy Product Design was kind of a turning point in my education. My team consisted of six members from different areas of study. Our toy was Echo, a musical instrument like device. By using an ultrasonic sensor to measure the distance between the Echo and the next nearest surface, a musical note was determined. For example, playing with your hand breaking the sight line of the sensor, while moving in an accordion like motion, would move up and down the scale of notes. I became decent at playing Twinkle, Twinkle.

We were successful in making a completely functioning prototype. The design included a rechargeable battery, a screen showing a clef and the current note, and the choice of two octaves for the current note. A midi chip was used to provide a range of instruments. Memory also allowed for the storage of a short song creation. The code was implemented through an Arduino board. The outer shell was 3-D printed based on a Solidworks model.

We ran into hardships in making the design the size we wanted, as our prototype electronics were larger than we would have hoped, but moving forward we would have been able to utilize printed circuit boards and other solutions to make them smaller and easier to work with. We chose not to pursue further development after the class. After the project, a Canadian television program expressed interest in featuring it on their show. How they heard about it, we don't know.

The Lever Lab

Case Study #3

The Lever Lab was a project I completed with my design partner Ross for a professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. He was looking for a model that high school anatomy and physiology students could use to learn about the relationship of the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the arm. He wanted a model that would be under $50 dollars, as the current models available were around $500 and out of the budget of many of the schools he works with.

We used wood, laser cut acrylic, a common spring force meter, and standard bolts and nuts to create our model for well under $50. Multiple holes on the arm of the device allowed for flexibility in the curriculum to compare the necessary force to lift loads at different insertion points. The arm also acted as a ruler, having distances laser cut into the acrylic in the manufacturing process. We came up with a way for the string to go up over a pulley, and down to a homemade locking mechanism to hold the arm in place at a certain height while taking readings.

With this project, we were able to design and redesign certain aspects until we found the most effective solutions. The nut locking mechanism was a quick and easy five cent solution to hold lever arm steady. We placed a thin sheet of acrylic plastic on the base, allowing students to take notes and do quick calculations with dry erase markers during the lab. The main body of the device was designed to be able to be integrated with future models we made for the professor, including one representing the pumping of the heart.

Overall it was a very successful project. We initially manufactured six of the devices to present at a conference, where we received positive feedback from teachers. Further manufacturing was implemented through an applied science and manufacturing curriculum at a high school in the Twin Cities area, and the device was placed in schools throughout the metro area. As mentioned above, this project led to further projects with the same professor, including a model representing the pumping of the heart, and a model representing active transport and diffusion as a sodium-potassium pump in the human body.

Fresh Cuts

Case Study #4

Fresh Cuts was another project I completed with my design partner Ross. We were looking for a way to branch out into the creative fields in the Minneapolis area and came up with a video interview project. We created seven video interviews focusing on creativity and how it is used in different industries. We called the project Fresh Cuts and ended up getting independent study credit for the video series under the product design minor.

The project was the first time I made videos intended to be seen by large audiences. I learned a lot about the video editing process through creating the videos. I also gained a lot of experience and confidence through networking with the individuals we included in the project. I developed the site the videos are featured on.

My biggest take away from this project was more of a self-confidence. I took on the project with little experience, knowing I was very interested, but had a long way to go. I learned many skills, not necessarily all applicable to all fields, but the mindset of undertaking a task and self-learning the methods to combine with my design aesthetic, and finishing with a final product I'm proud of was huge. I'll admit, the final week included a couple 14+ hour days of video editing to finish the project, but I persevered and believe in myself that much more for it.

Virtual Reality Headset

Case Study #5

Ross and I worked on a project for the Virtual Reality Design Lab at the University of Minnesota. The VRDL is in the design college. They have a state of the art setup for tracking movement within a given area, and an iPad app that loads 3-D models of buildings, showing them stereoscopically, allowing students and clients to explore the models.

A little background on the project. The first version utilized by the VRDL was a computer program, where the user would wear a commercial headset connected to a computer carried in a backpack. At first, the computer required a large amount of processing power to create the graphics. This put a strain on the user, having to carry the hefty backpack. When we joined the project, the VRDL was using a headset made of cardboard and electrical tape to hold an iPad, and an antler set made of wood was taped to the top. This was much of an improvement in user experience, but they brought us on board to further improve the headset.

We started by finding the required dimensions, such as the necessary focal length from the lenses to the screen. These dimensions gave us an outline for what the headset would have to include, and we worked from there to develop a Solidworks model minimizing the material and weight of the headset. A welding helmet webbing was used as the way to mount the helmet on the users head, as the common adjustments needed to fit head sizes were included, and one could be purchased cheaply. We went through a couple iterations, working with the advisors of the VRDL group to get a headset that they approved of and that we felt would best achieve the goal of improved user experience.

Our final model was 3-D printed in the Design School at the University of Minnesota. Eventually ten models were printed and used at the 2014 IEEE Virtual Reality Conference that was being hosted in Minneapolis which acted as our deadline for the project. There are a couple improvements that could be made to better the headset. One we discussed but didn't have time to add was an arm extension that would come over the top of the head and have the battery and transmitter box mounted. Putting this behind the head would help to balance the weight and add comfort for the user. The other big area for possible improvement would be to place mounts for the LED's on the headset instead of requiring antlers. The LED's flashing at different frequencies are what the cameras track and provide the movement within the app. Overall it was a very fun project to be a part of and the VRDL was happy with the result we produced.

Control Systems

Case Study #6

I took two classes in my technical electives that solidified the areas I'm interested in with respect to mechanical engineering. I took a class called Robotics where we went through the mathematics behind joint manipulation for robotic arms, as well as coding a truck to drive around a track in the C programming language. The second half of the class involved vision systems and image processing. I also took a class called Motion Control Lab that dealt with many types of motion control including analog and digital control and PLC controllers.

The picture above is a screenshot from the robot truck simulator. Over the course of the semester I wrote code to have the truck find points along a track and use a proportional, integral, and derivative controller to drive towards it, minimizing lateral error and obeying the speed limits. There wasn't a ton of direction with this project and as a result I taught myself much of the necessary C code and developed a project I was very proud of and that placed well relatively in the class. The second half of the robotics class focused on vision systems and image processing using MatLab as a processing tool. I really enjoyed this part of the course, having not been very experienced with MatLab before hand. Projects ranged from determining coins in a picture based on size to counting the number of a certain letter in a text document. Going back to my internship with Hormel Foods, I saw the image processing in use in a real world scenario, used to make sure packages of bacon were correct before boxing and shipping.

The other class, Motion Control Lab, dealt with using C code to control motor revolutions using analog to digital and digital to analog controllers, and later in the course programming PLC's. I very much enjoyed learning what it takes to program a PLC having experienced many machines controlled by one in my internship. Projects in the course ranged from having a motor with an encoder rotate to certain position to writing the PLC code for a typical washing machine.

Throughout the semester I became much more adept at programming in C and utilizing MatLab as an analysis tool. My interest was sparked in the controls portion of mechanical engineering and I was happy to have found success in the hands on projects associated with the classes. I can definitely see myself getting into a field associated with controls in the future.