Making a Furnace Feeding Machine

– By Faisal Masud, BE Mechanical ’12, College of Electrical & Mechanical Engineering 

Pictures by Faisal Masud

It was always my goal to end my bachelor studies by doing something big and different. I had already taken 2 projects of level high enough to be called as final year projects. So, for the real final year project, I was both confident and charged up.

Instead of going for simulation study or small working concepts, I and my best friend, Saad Zulfiqar (with whom I have done almost every project and known him for a decade) hit upon the decision to do an industrial project. While I was on internships, I deeply monitored systems of the factory to see if there was any area which needed to be addressed. Apart from that, I had been inquiring known people in industry about their problems so I could offer them some help.

At last we had a list of problems compiled over which we could work. One of them was that of a local Aluminium production factory in feeding huge scrap material into the furnace. The factory had temporarily devised a solution to feed the blocks but it was a bit crude as well as damaging to the furnace. We were given the task of designing a unique and low-cost solution to replace the current system. Some solutions were available in the market but they were about 10 times more expensive than the furnace itself, and did not cater to all the requirements of the feeding process.

The Concept: Computer Model of the Machine

At first, we thought it wasn’t a difficult task. Quickly, I started making concept models on 3D modeling software “SolidWorks”, for which I had much expertise due to previous projects. It was all fun discussing and thinking how to receive the material, how to transfer it into the furnace and how to drop it. We had already been briefed on the constraints we had to take care of while designing any solution.

During the evolution process, our design changed its face about 5-6 times. Every time we would hit upon a solution to one problem, it got solved but another popped up. This is the beauty of Mechanical Engineering. You do not have to be looking at a single aspect. You need to consider cost, design criteria, manufacturability, and feasibility all at the same time. Leaving or sacrificing any of them will result in a design that will pose problems in future. It’s fun and challenging.

After nearly 3-4 months of constant brainstorming and tweaks, we prepared what was the best and cheapest solution to the problem. We took this to the factory personnel, explained, and got a green signal to carry it forward. The work so far included layout and qualitative design, that is, it consisted of mechanisms and the way material would be received, transported, and fed. It did not address the structural part of the problem. The blocks to be fed were 950 kilograms heavy, so calculations had to be done to design a structure capable of holding them safely.

The concept we designed consisted of a vehicle that could move laterally as well as longitudinally. Meaning it could move forward, backward, right, and left. Unlike a car which cannot move right or left without taking a curved path, our machine could instantaneously start moving right and left from wherever it was standing. It consisted of long beams over which material would ‘ride’ and then be dropped into the furnace wherein temperature would be above 200 degrees Celsius.

After we had designed the machine on computer and done basic calculations, we had to make the machine. Since the full-scale model required lots of funds which we could have got, we decided to first make a full-scale working prototype of 3:1 that could handle about 200-300 kilograms of material. The purpose of it was to find out the problems that would arise in manufacturing and working of machine in full-scale, so that they can be fixed before the actual thing is made. We gathered some funds on our own in a bid to start work as early as possible. The funding request would have taken too long to smoothly start fabrication.

Finally, the most critical and difficult phase begun: we started purchasing parts. This required us to travel extensively, negotiate to buy at reasonable price, walk in heat. The initial plan was to gather all the parts and fabricate those requiring little time and effort first, and then assemble them. After a grind of over 1 month, we had most of the parts ready. In the beginning, assembly looked like an easy task, but once we started off, it started to give us serious headache.

We did not hand over the tasks to any single person. In fact, we carried out all operations separately, under our own supervision, from different workers and in some cases, did the work ourselves. The final assembly started in the porch of my own house. Now the work hours on the project went from being 3-4 to about 8-9. Traveling increased. More effort was needed to handle things as now they were heavy (our final machine weight was 150 kilograms). Even a palm sized piece of machine weighed more than 1.5 kg. We were just two handling all this. Our work required excessive welding and mechanical operations. We had to hire a welder to come to my home to do the work as the machine, being assembled now, became heavier and harder to transport. Earlier, all the parts were heavy but small enough to be transported in my own car. After its heart was assembled, only a mini truck could hold it.

Real Machine (Some Components Not Connected)

As time passed, we kept on assembling things. Exams really put a brake to our efforts and some work was left for the two weeks after exams, till the open house. Now we were working from about 9 in morning to 7 in evening, not even getting a chance to go into my house despite being working in the porch of it. Things started to break, sometimes due to mishandling. New unseen issues arose. A lot of work popped up which we hadn’t anticipated. Costs were already going up due to repair or design tweaks. Fighting all those, we had the machine standing about 2 days before open house, albeit with few misalignments of some components. Nevertheless, it could perform some functions, though in limited ‘demo’ mode.

Our worst nightmare came when we were transporting the machine to college for open house. Since it wasn’t designed to sustain upward loads, it broke one of its legs the night before open house while offloading. That was our most tense moment. At around 9 pm, we managed to get a welder to get the job done. Somehow, it was again ready for display. Having known some more weaknesses of design, we vowed to correct them after open house before handing over the machine to our clients. Surprisingly, a quick solution solved the problem and left us lamenting that had we done this before, we could have avoided so much expense and headache.

Nevertheless, in the end, we had our 150 kg, 7 feet long and 4 feet wide machine ready with all components mounted. It had caused us to remain on our toes for about 3 months, made us travel in intense heat with no time for lunch or water. Watching it stand somehow gives a relief now and makes us think that all our effort was not wasted.

I had always been a shy and a bit curious person all my life. During this project, I learnt a lot to overcome my limitations and feel like a better person. The reward of projects is not just technical learning: it teaches you management, staying cool, and lots of other behavioral traits. Today, it doesn’t matter to me how good or bad was our design and effort. What makes me happy is that today I am a better and confident professional because of all the grind we took. We had worked like 180+ hours on the entire project. That’s similar to working continuously for more than 10 days. At extreme working time, we did not have time even for lunch. And the traveling was around 1000+ kilometers.

The machine now stands and awaits delivery to our clients. We had utilized our knowledge of dynamics, statistics, mechanics of materials, machine design, and mechanical element design during our project. In terms of scope, it was quite huge and we felt we two were too less of a workforce for a project of this level. Nevertheless, due to Allah’s will and support of our families, we did it and got the comfort that we had not wasted our engineering studies.

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