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Global Internship = Real-World Engineering Experience

In preparation for work on her capstone project, Rachel Wilmoth, a senior mechanical engineering student, spent a month in Uganda last summer interning with Village Energy—learning about engineering in a developing country, teaching locals about the merits of solar power, and gaining the experience and confidence necessary to take on her year-long work.

Rachel Wilmoth ’14 with her completed design
Rachel Wilmoth ’14 with her completed design

Wilmoth's senior design team is designing and constructing a device to turn discarded Ugandan plastic water bottles into 3D printing filament. "In Uganda, they use imported plastic filament for 3D printing," she said. "The mail service is unreliable and expensive, so having a locally sourced material would be ideal." With little organized recycling in existence in the city of Kampala, there is a huge surplus of raw material available to use for the students' process. "This was a pre-research trip," Wilmoth explained. "I learned what things to take into account, how their ideas compare to ours, and what supplies can be purchased there."

Her host company, Village Energy, is dedicated to bringing locally produced and distributed solar energy systems to rural areas in Uganda. But with their wood or sheet metal packaging, they were finding it difficult to compete with the sleek appearance of imported products. The solution: create an enclosure for the solar panel, battery, and control electronics using 3D printing. Wilmoth's task was to draft the enclosure, figure out the 3D printer settings, determine which filament to use, and test the printing process.

"I was in Kampala for three weeks working on the design. While I was there, the night guard for Village Energy took an interest in what I was doing, so I taught him how to use the 3D modeling software and the printers. By the time I left, he could print boxes and get things moving."

Her final week in Uganda was spent traveling through rural villages, showing what solar products can do. "I would stand up in front of 50 people with a translator and explain the technology behind the products and the philosophy behind Village Energy's goal of empowering local people and supporting their economy."

When Wilmoth returned to California, she brought with her a suitcase full of discarded Ugandan water bottles. She and her teammates are researching the thermal properties of the PET plastic, which differ from the ABS plastic used for 3D printing here at home. With the design stage coming to a close, they are ready to start building their machine.

"In my sophomore year I took a class, Technology for Social Justice, and we looked at a lot of case studies of reverse engineering for the developing world. Before that, I didn't know about social entrepreneurship. Now, having been to Uganda and working with Village Energy, I have a better understanding of how a for-profit company can have a social mission. It was a really great experience and I learned a lot. Engineering in the real world—problem-solving, working with people, helping to make a difference in people's lives—it's pretty gratifying."