To the hiss of compressed air, the grinding of gears and the hum of electrical motors, a group of Rend Lake College Industrial Maintenance Technology students recently unveiled their semester projects: fully automated machines capable of sorting aluminum, tin and plastic.
Students in Electricity Professor Chris Nielsen’s Automated Controls class worked on their designs throughout much of the course. He said the college provided the automation and portions of the hardware, but the students, divided into three teams, built their machines as they chose.
The requirement was to build a fully automated machine which would separate aluminum cans, tin cans and plastic bottles. Students received extra credit if their machines also could separate glass bottles.
Project requirements called for the machines to separate at least 20 mixed cans and bottles in 60 seconds.
According to student Jeremiah McCann of Benton, who was a member of "Team White," his group’s machine worked by filling a hopper made of sheet metal at one end of the machine with the assortment of containers. A conveyor lined with brackets grabbed the cans and bottles from the hopper and dropped them into a chute, where another conveyor carried them in a straight line toward the end of the machine.
Along the way, proximity sensors attuned specifically to aluminum or tin detected if an aluminum or tin can passed beneath them, triggering cylinders to activate. The cylinders caused metal barriers to divert the materials to the appropriate boxes. Because none of the sensors were set up to detect plastic, the bottles simply fell off the end of the conveyor into a box.
McCann said the main difficulty in the early stages was the machine’s hopper/conveyor system. After rebuilding it, the device worked well, he said. He described the project as fun overall.
James Prochaska of New Minden, part of "Team Blue," said containers placed in his team’s machine travelled down a slope, where a rotating device was set up to separate the cans and regulate the flow. Their machine also used sensors to detect the various materials, with one difference being the use of a magnet on a robotic arm to remove the tin cans.
"Team Red" member Justin Wilbern of Pinckneyville said his group used a dryer bin as its hopper, also implementing inflators, devices which randomly shook up the containers in the bottom of the bin. The items then fell to a conveyor, where a can opener with magnets separated them.
As the containers passed along the conveyor, sensors detected which material was passing before them. When triggered, the sensors activated plungers which shoved the item off the conveyor into the appropriate box.
Half of the project involved the creation of an operator’s manual, which contained diagrams, connections and descriptions of the purpose and operation of the machine.
"It’s kind of like a ‘senior’ project," said Nielsen. After reviewing during the first two or three weeks of the course, it was up to the students "to put it together and make it work," he said.
"It’s basically an application of all they’ve learned," said Nielsen. "There’s a lot of creativity involved, too."
Team members were: Team White - McCann, Kevin Livesay (Akin), Matt Molla (Herrin) and Jeremy Gajewski (Scheller); Team Blue - Prochaska, Seth Kellam (West Frankfort) and Nathan Hagene (Pinckneyville); and Team Red - Wilbern, Roland Karcher (Waltonville) and Chris Fauset (Akin).