Integrated Design Project – A great enjoyment and nightmare at the same time

At the end of the previous article I shortly mentioned a project called IDP (Integrated Design Project), which is undergone in turns by all 2nd year students and which we took on during 5 weeks in November and start of December. Because it is undeniably one of the peaks of the first two years of the broad Engineering course, I would now like to look back at the project in more detail.

The task was for groups of 6 or 7 students to design and build a small robotic vehicle all the way from basic components and program it to perform a particular task. To end the project, there was then a competition held between the vehicles of different groups. The task was to pick up boxes that contained various types of electrical circuits inside, distinguish the particular type of circuit and then deliver the box to its appropriate location determined by the type of the circuit inside. In our group we were divided into three sub-teams. The first sub-team (consisting of three members) was responsible for the mechanical design and the actual putting-together of the vehicle. The second sub-team (with two members), in which I was involved, designed the electrical circuitry needed for both the control and navigation of the vehicle, and for distinguishing the content of the boxes. The third sub-team (also of 2 people) then did the programming with a use of control theory and co-operated very closely with us as the electrical sub-team. Before the start of the project, I only knew my colleague from the electrical sub-team, and I met all the other members of the group for the first time. The entire phase of preparation of the robot took 4 weeks, and apart from the actual design and construction involved also numerous written reports, presentations about the progress of the team and also the necessity to go through design acceptances for every single sub-system. The project therefore felt very realistic, although the endless reports and presentations were often a nightmare and their preparation often took place instead of sleep during the cold November nights. On the other hand, the actual design and building process was fun and a very useful challenge, for which we used knowledge from many subjects of the broad course. Because the project was extra to the standard lectures and supervisions (and in my case also rowing), the November schedule was incredibly busy and exhausting. We spent the entire of the last week of term doing tests and repairs to make the vehicle perform well in the competition. We worked together with the programming team to make even slight details work. Because the mechanical sub-team did not really share our enthusiasm and did not want to keep working out of the compulsory hours, we also had to fix mechanical issues in order not to throw away month´s worth of work. In the end, our robot performed pretty well and won the competition against other 11 groups, which was a big reward for our effort. It was also very inspiring to see the various approaches that the groups took to tackle the problem. One of the reasons why IDP is a very strong part of the first two years of Engineering at Cambridge is because the co-operation with other people plays a key role, whilst in other parts of the course it is sufficient to co-operate with a calculator and tables of values. Even within a 7-member group, we were a mix of people with different interests, different ideas and different levels of commitment, and it took quite some effort to make it all work. We became very good friends with the programming team during the project. Currently, we are past the half-way mark of the second term. During the first 4 weeks we have undergone another very interesting project, this time to do with structures in earthquakes. However, the amount of work and commitment needed for this was nowhere near the IDP. In the second half of this term we are coming back to the standard scheme of single labs. It is also the last few weeks that we all study together the broad Engineering course. After the Easter break, we will have optional subjects that will lead us to our specialization at the start of the 3rd year. I will write about the process of specialisation and picking the subjects in my next article. The good news is that there are many more subjects on offer that I would like to do than how many I am actually allowed to do. Therefore I can just hope now that I will make the right decisions.

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