This One’s for You, Memo!

Expanding border relations: ITESM students compete in a heart-stopping UA Engineering robot soccer tournament; manufacturing partners sign on for Senior Design projects.

ITESM Systems Process RoboCup Soccer TournamentBarely three weeks after the Mexican National Football Team was knocked out of the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil, Mexican soccer, or fútbol, players of a different stripe competed in a heart-stopping Soccer RoboCup Junior tournament on July 18 at the University of Arizona.

What the two-wheeled, autonomous LEGO robots lacked in beating hearts (at least for now; anything’s possible, given advances in robotics), they made up for in technical wizardry, sporty attire, and the excitement they generated as their student designers and supporters cheered, high-fived, and shouted “Gooooooooool!”

Thirty-four industrial engineering and mechatronics undergraduates from the Tecnológico de Monterrey Sonora Norte Campus, or ITESM, participated in the capstone event of “The Systems Process,” a three-week course taught by UA associate professor of systems and industrial engineering Ricardo Valerdi.

“Dr. Valerdi’s course was as an excellent course that I wish I had taken earlier in my career,” said fourth-year mechatronics student Rodrigo Alonso. “He calls the course The Systems Process, but it should be called Good Engineering. I personally believe every engineer should take it.”

Alonso added, “For me, the most fun part of the class was building the soccer-playing robot. The competition to see who would win the tournament added spice to the whole course, allowing for healthy competition and some heated discussions among students. In all, it was a wonderful experience.”

The summer course, which ended July 18, was offered through an international exchange program run by the UA Office of Global Initiatives in collaboration with the ITESM campus in Hermosillo.

“ITESM is the flagship engineering institute for higher learning in Mexico, and these are some of the best engineering students in that country,” said Valerdi. “This course was our first collaboration of its kind with them.”

RoboCup in Action

UA Engineering RoboCup Junior soccer robotsIn the RoboCup Junior contest, autonomous robots performed on two small playing fields in the University of Arizona BookStores lobby, beneath an international flags display. Five teams of students designed the robots, which punted a special soccer ball that transmits infrared signals. Many competitors wore Mexico’s national colors of red, white, and green; referees sported the requisite pinstripes.

Team Ochoa won the tournament; they chose their moniker in honor of Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa, the Mexican National Football Team’s star goalkeeper.

Preparing for the RoboCup contest was truly a labor of love for the students. Fourth-year mechatronics major Flor Burruel, who aspires to develop “green electricity sources,” said she burned the midnight oil in the final hours before the Friday morning tournament, testing and making adjustments to the robot for her team.

“I have never had this kind of experience, and I hope to have more of them,” she said.

RoboCup Junior is a student contest affiliated with RoboCup International, now in its 20th year. The 2014 RoboCup was held in Brazil a week after the World Cup, with teams of professional engineers competing from more than 40 countries. Over the years, the competition has led to important scientific breakthroughs. By creating soccer robots that can act autonomously and coordinate movements in dynamic environments, roboticists are paving the way for more advanced robots to serve on battlefields and perform human rescue operations.

Transcending Geography

Mike Proctor, UA vice president of global initiatives, stressed the value of the exchange program with ITESM, not only for the two universities, but also for bordering countries.

“The UA’s connection with Mexico transcends geography,” he said. “Our respective faculty have been working together for years, and our collaborations with Mexico reflect a critical strategic opportunity. Mexico is one of the United States’ primary trade partners, and Mexico’s economy is one of the most robust in the world. Our universities are uniquely situated, based on their connections with students and industry, to profoundly impact our shared economic future.”

Myrta Rodríguez, professor and director of the department of industrial engineering at the ITESM Sonora Norte Campus, noted, “We are committed to development of international vision in our students. We are proud to have had this opportunity to collaborate with the University of Arizona.”

Lectures, Labs, and Diamondbacks

The Systems Process class included morning lectures and afternoon labs, where students designed the soccer robots and wrote software to operate them. Students also took two field trips, one to Biosphere 2 and another to Chase Field.

“Biosphere 2 is an interesting experiment and a very complex system, located just outside Tucson, that helps students learn how to design complex systems that interface with the human and natural environments,” Valerdi said.

Chase Field in Phoenix, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, is “another complex system with sophisticated technologies; for the roof, the air conditioning, and the information technology required to run a professional baseball game,” he said.

Said third-year mechatronics student Juan Rafael Capobianco, “On the field trips, we could apply what we had learned in class in different contexts.”

The ITESM exchange program was about more than just systems engineering.

“Being at a U.S. university helped many of us in improving our English and interacting with people from other nations and cultures,” said Rodrigo Alonso. “I met people from Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and, of course, many Mexicans and Americans.”

Seniors Benefit from Partnerships With Maquiladoras

Like most University of Arizona Engineering seniors, Lee Johnson completed a Senior Capstone Design Project before receiving his BS in optical sciences and engineering this spring. He got help from Continental Automotive Systems, a multinational company with a manufacturing plant in the border city of Nogales in Sonora, Mexico, that provides electronics for the automotive industry.

Continental sponsored three senior design projects this year following its successful collaborations with UA Engineering students last year. Johnson’s team used optical science technology to design a quality-control inspection system for Continental’s automobile dashboards. The project won second place for Best Overall Design at the 2014 Engineering Design Day in May.

“Working in Sonora broadened my perspective, from an introverted, national view of engineering to a collective international one,” said Johnson.

Mechanical engineering student Thomas Lundstrom also worked on the dashboard project.

“Partnering with a Mexican company brought a sense of the unknown,” he said. “But once we got to tour the plant, it gave us a sense of awe. It was an extremely impressive facility, and it was amazing to see what a large quantity of automobile parts they were able to manufacture.”

Martinrea International, which operates an automotive manufacturing plant in Hermosillo, Sonora, also sponsored a senior project this year.

“The Martinrea project was a new experience for us, because it was divided into two parts -- one assigned to UA students, and another assigned to students at the Tecnológico de Monterrey Sonora Norte Campus, or ITESM, located in Hermosillo” said Ara Arabyan, professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering and director of the Senior Capstone Design Program. “We find this type of collaboration particularly useful, because it enables both institutions to get to know each other and learn from each other, and it creates rich opportunities for student exchange.”

In the fall, representatives from the manufacturing plants (often called maquiladoras) join other potential project sponsors at the College’s Engineering Design Day Open House, where they present real design problems and invite interested seniors to solve them. If the projects are accepted, the companies provide financial support for the design team, and students complete their projects at the Sonora plant.

Then, in the spring, corporate sponsors attend UA’s Engineering Design Day, when the student teams showcase their creations, to serve as judges and award prizes. This year, those awards totaled more than $14,000.

Tapping into a Dynamic Global Marketplace

Such cross-border collaborations offer innumerable benefits for the UA and industry partners. They increase opportunities for undergraduate and graduate student recruitment and provide an important avenue for companies in Sonora to recruit UA students.

Working in Sonora also better prepares students to succeed in a globally connected world, said Justin Dutram, program coordinator in the University’s Office of Global Initiatives.

“The collaborations with the manufacturing sector in Sonora allow our students to polish their engineering skills in a global context, only 100 kilometers from campus,” he said. “While solving real-world engineering design problems in advanced manufacturing, they develop intercultural competencies and learn how to manage projects -- skill sets that are highly regarded by employers.”

Sonora is home to hundreds of automotive, biomedical, and electronic manufacturing plants and is gaining a growing presence in the aerospace industry. In the last year, the UA has stepped up its partnerships with manufacturing firms in Mexico and investigated new avenues for strengthening cross-border relationships.

In June, the UA hosted a meeting of the US-Mexico Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation, and Research, which U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña established in 2013 to expand opportunities for educational exchanges, scientific research partnerships, and cross-border innovation for both countries.

“It was truly an honor to be selected as the site for the sixth meeting of this important bilateral forum,” UA President Ann Weaver Hart said at the conference. “We know that having strong partnerships with Mexico -- through trade, student exchange, and collaborative knowledge creation -- is critical to the health and prosperity of economies on both sides of the border.”