They say where there’s a will, there’s a way.
N.C. State University engineering students visited Knightdale Thursday to show Schneider Electric engineers that with a wheel – or pulley, or magnet, or a complex series of wires – there are ways to solve an ongoing issue with charging stations for electric vehicles.
Like it did last year, the energy management company posed a challenge for the school’s engineering students to work on as a senior design project. This challenge asked 30 students, divided into six teams, to design a system that can dispense and retract 20 feet of electric vehicle charging cable and lock the cable inside the body of the charging station.
With Schneider’s current system, the cable is stored on a hook outside the unit like an air hose at a gas station. The company sees a need for a reeling system to prevent theft of the cable, which includes copper parts, and the potential for the cable to be damaged when users leave it off the hook.
“Sometimes people just leave (the cable unhooked) and sometimes people just run over it,” said engineering student Nick Banks, of Benson. “That charging handle is the most expensive part, and when people run over that it has to be replaced. Between damage and theft, it’s a very big need.”
Reeling in the cable and incorporating a locking mechanism is trickier than it may sound. Banks said the complex electronics inside the charging station made the challenge live up to its name.
“To make (the electronics) work with the mechanical aspect is very difficult,” he said. “There’s a lot of in-betweens that need to be done.”
Schneider spokesman Greg Lawrence said it’s been a hard problem to solve even for engineers in the industry.
“The solutions haven’t always been successful for different reasons,” Lawrence said.
The student teams produced six entirely different prototypes for Schneider workers to inspect and chew over for a couple hours Thursday.
Banks’ team came up with a device consisting of a horizontal wheel that spins and draws in the cable. Some designs were electronic, some were mechanical, and some pulled equally from both branches of engineering.
“They had a problem in front of them and they all came up with different, unique solutions,” Lawrence said. “There’s some creative solutions some of these guys have come up with. They all look very interesting.”
Lawrence said Schneider currently does not have plans to incorporate any of the student designs into its products, but said they may prove useful in the future.
Banks said the project was a good lesson on theory versus reality for the engineering students.
“A lot of times when we’re in class we learn a lot of theory, but it is rare that we actually get to do hands-on work and learn from our mistakes,” he said. “I know our group learned a tremendous amount from the mistakes we made.”
Banks said it also couldn’t hurt to add working on a project with a big name in the industry to his resume. After all, Schneider went on to hire from the lot of students that worked on last year’s project.
“We’re trying to improve the number of touch-points we have with N.C. State – working to establish even more ties,” Lawrence said. “For us, this is good feedback, good input.”