Texas Tech University

Helping the Helpers: Student Project Improves Efficiency at South Plains Food Bank

Amanda Bowman

July 11, 2019

(VIDEO) A group of mechanical engineering students created a conveyor belt to ease the workload of food bank employees and volunteers.

Helping those in need can be very fulfilling. Many people choose to either give their time, talent or monetary funds to make an impact on their communities. One group of mechanical engineering students from Texas Tech University helped the Lubbock and surrounding communities by creating a motorized conveyor belt for the South Plains Food Bank, which increased efficiency and decreased the workload of the staff and volunteers.

It all began in August 2018 when George Gray, a mechanical engineering instructor at Texas Tech, volunteered at the South Plains Food Bank.

"I had been working at the South Plains Food Bank in the dry food box area, and we had this very basic type of conveyor that looked home built and was fairly long," Gray said. "There were some problems with it. It caused a little bit of a delay in some of the boxes and getting them packed and onto the pallets. Carts would run in to it. Some of the actual conveyor parts didn't run; they weren't rotational. It just lacked a lot of efficiency.

"Knowing that, and knowing I teach a project-oriented design class where we put students on projects, I thought this would be a good combination to help the food bank, help our students and benefit both entities."

With his idea developed, Gray approached David Weaver, the CEO of the South Plains Food Bank, with his suggestion.

"George thought he could come up with a better idea, and he talked to me about letting some of his mechanical engineering students take this on as a project," Weaver said. "I thought that was a great idea."

Picking the students

Gray is particular and calculating when selecting students for certain projects. He makes sure every team member is able to contribute in different ways.

"I actually profile all my students in the beginning of the semester to find out what their skill levels are, where their interests are and what kind of background and experience they've had," Gray said. "Some people have some practical, hands-on shop experience. Some people are really good at design. So, I try to mix those skill levels into each of the six different design teams in my class."

Gray also said he doesn't allow his students to pick the project they want to work on.

"It's another dose of reality, with respect to when they go out to work," he said. "They're not going to be able to pick and choose what project they want; they get assigned a project."

After careful consideration, Gray enlisted students Jake Pullara, Jonathan Smith, Armando Vigil, Kinzie Juergins, Benjamin Godinez, Agha Ali and Zane Andrews – who all graduated this May – to tackle the conveyor belt project at the South Plains Food Bank.

The students went to the food bank to see what issues needed resolving.

"George and the students came out, looked at the old table and said, 'Oh, yeah, we can do a lot better than this,'" Weaver said.

After inspecting the older conveyor system at the food bank, the group went to Cargill Meat Solutions in Friona for inspiration and insight on how to design a motorized conveyor belt.

"We got the project assigned to us in the beginning of September last year, and then we visited Cargill in October," Pullara said. "We got to see how they run their conveyor belts day and night, 24/7, 365, and that inspired us to change some of our designs from what it was, a chain drive system, to what it has become, a v-belt drive system."

Pullara said meeting with Natalia, the South Plains Food Bank employee who runs the dry foods room, also shifted the way the group thought about the new conveyor system.

"We had to consider designing for manufacturability and then functional simplicity the entire time," Pullara said. "Natalia is the full-time worker in (the dry foods) room, and she doesn't always have volunteers. We needed to make it fully autonomous so that if she's here by herself, the whole room can operate. But if she has volunteers, things can just churn out."

Working together

One of the things Gray insists his students do while working on the project is alternate as a team member and a team leader.

"Every team member will be a team leader for a period of two weeks, where they're in charge of the entire team, the entire project and everything that gets done," Gray said. "They have to schedule the meetings, write the agendas, put down tasks, resolve issues and deal with different people they don't know with different skills and different personalities. All those things they will learn eventually from work, they had the benefit of actually working with a real client, a really good customer because of the benefits in the community."

Pullara noted that the enormity of the project caused the team to form mini groups internally.

"The project was so big, we split into three groups: frame, drive and electrical," he said. "Jonathan and I were responsible for the frame design, manufacturing and assembly. The entire team, as we were designing the project, we had to think about how is it going to be made and how are we going to put it together. Not a lot of graduating engineering students get that kind of experience."

Pullara also mentioned how his hands-on learning on the project made him realize that seemingly minor changes can impact the safety of a design.

"I got to learn about bend allowances and sheet metal gauges, the small changes in material thickness," he said. "The gauge of the sheet metal can change a lot in the stress or the safety factor of the table. When we used one-eighth-inch sheet metal, it wasn't as safe as it is now when we're using 10 gauge. And that's things I didn't know that could make a huge impact prior to this class."

Community involvement

Though the Texas Tech students offered a creative design and solution to the food bank's problem, they lacked certain resources. Thankfully, other companies in the community stepped up to help.

"There are a lot of other entities out here in the community that like to help the food bank and so, therefore, we benefited from that," Gray said. "We got a lot of the actual steel, the material, donated to us. A lot of the fabrication methods were donated to us as far as another company helping us fabricate some of this, because our students aren't really hands-on fabricators. But (the students) designed it and people used (their) designs to make a lot of components. We made some of the custom components (at Texas Tech), right here in our lab, but a lot of the standardized components were made somewhere else. But again, (those companies) donated their time to work with our design."

Weaver appreciated seeing the students collaborate with workers at the food bank and the continued relationship between Texas Tech and the South Plains Food Bank.

"We have worked closely with students at Texas Tech over the history of the food bank," he said. "We've worked with industrial engineering students, now mechanical engineering students, we have people from ag programs that come out and help us volunteer, but especially lend their expertise to projects that we're working on. It really energizes our staff and volunteers because people come in with fresh ideas.

"It's just great to meet the youngsters and listen to their ideas, find out where they're going after they finish school. I think for the students, one of the things that was fun for them, these are real life projects. And it really helps us, but it gives them an opportunity to work with our staff and vendors who help us with electronics and mechanical issues. You get to see how to solve real-life problems. They're working with these guys who don't have their engineering expertise, but they've got a wealth of experience and just making things work and putting things together. They learn from each other, and I've enjoyed watching that process."

Final result

After two semesters' worth of work, the new, motorized conveyor belt system for the food bank was completed. The days of struggling to push boxes on an old roller system were officially gone.

"At the touch of a button, they can actually start and stop this conveyor to where it's more efficient, and it's not something they have to physically try to stop like we did, or physically try to push," Gray said.

When the food bank workers and volunteers saw the new conveyor belt in action, they were thrilled.

"I think everybody loved it," Weaver said. "Of course, we'd watched it evolve as the students came in and put the pieces together. They came in one Saturday, took out the old table, put this in. The rollers are so much more efficient, and it was just easy to work, even without the motor and the automated system. So they've loved watching it. They worked with the young people as they've come out and made modifications. Then once it finally got working, they were really happy with it because we make the food boxes here. Then when we're ready to palletize the boxes, it automates the process and moves the boxes down. So we're not having to push the boxes down the rollers, and it you know, it's just fun. I think they've enjoyed it."

Lasting impact

The experience the students will take from working on the project will follow them as they venture out into the working world.

"One of the things companies always ask us about when we interview, at the job fair or anytime, is what kind of projects we've worked on," Pullara said. "To be able to design this from nothing and actually see something come up before us is a great experience.

"To have a project that's this massive, that isn't small and just going to get thrown in the trash when we leave, it's going to create a real impact. We're feeding families with this project, so that's what was so incredible to me."

Gray called the project between Texas Tech and the South Plains Food Bank a match made in heaven and valued the process.

"I think we all enjoyed working with the food bank," he said. "I just hope that it continues to benefit the work there at the food bank and help our community."

The connection Texas Tech has built with the South Plains Food Bank has been longstanding, and Weaver hopes that doesn't change.

"I'm really appreciative of the relationship we have with Texas Tech," Weaver said. "Texas Tech has always been a part of our life here at the food bank. We have student groups that come out and volunteer on a regular basis on Saturdays. We have student groups out at the farm and at the orchard. We couldn't do it if we didn't have those great volunteers.

"But the projects we have with Texas Tech really step it up a notch and help us in a lot of ways and, hopefully, it's a good experience for the students as well."