It is a long way from basic machine parts such as screws and shafts to the USD 500,000 mask aligners required to produce integrated circuits. But for engineers, selecting the exact part for a given task is simply good practice, however simple or complex the project may be.
To drive home that lesson, NYU Abu Dhabi Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering Rafael Song took his students in Machine Component Design, a course offered to mechanical engineering students at NYU Abu Dhabi in fall 2014, all the way to Germany.
Song had just two students in the class. The Engineering Division at NYUAD sponsored the lightning trip, and the Office of Global Education organized it. "I wanted to take the problems out of the classroom and show the students the real world," Song says, "not just solving problem sets in class but seeing real machine design in operation. So I came up with the idea of taking them to Germany, where there are so many world-class precision machine companies. I had a contact there so I just called and asked him if we could come, and he agreed."
And that's how Song, with Emirati national Nayef Abdouli (NYUAD '16) and Jordanian Nour AlGharibeh (NYUAD '15) got to suit up in "cleanroom" garb and see firsthand the production facilities at Suss MicroTec in Sternenfels, near Stuttgart.
During their visit to Germany from Oct 30 to Nov. 1, the trio of travelers toured the BMW World exhibition and BMW Museum — "another world-class German product," Song said of the automaker's cars. They also fit in a visit to the Deutsches Museum in Munich, a showplace of German scientific, engineering, and technological accomplishment.
Abdouli spoke of the voyage as "a glimpse to see how my future will look … I really wanted to see how engineers design such machines." And at the Deutsches Museum, he added, the three saw "how humans started using very basic tools such as hammers, and kept progressing until they came up with huge machines that can … break through mountains."
Or create the most sophisticated of electronic components. Song explains that Suss "is a world leader in this business. In fact they make the lion’s share of the mask aligners used worldwide," to produce the increasingly complex microchips so ubiquitous in modern microelectronics for telecommunications and other uses.
Song is from South Korea, a country with its own impressive record in engineering. But he greatly respects German skill and organization in the field of high-tech machinery. "They're so good at traditional machine design. Just look at their cars. They have a long history, more than 100 years, of pioneering work in engineering and technology. Also they have great training and apprenticeship programs that produce people who know how to work precisely."
To be sure, building big-ticket mask aligners to produce evermore-elaborate microchips is not part of the NYUAD third-year course in machine design, which focuses on basic components. All the same, Song says, it's good for students to understand that mastering the building blocks of machinery is the proper foundation for more demanding work.
His eyes light with enthusiasm as he explains the importance of even the simplest machine components: "Selecting the right spring is not trivial … and gears can be very, very complex."
But on this trip, he said, "the students got a glimpse of a complex mechanism and I think they came back … not ready to design a mask aligner, but at least understanding that complexity is built starting with basic components."
The trip was not a first for Song, who last year took students in a different course to a Singapore cleanroom of GlobalFoundries, a semiconductor foundry owned by Mubadala Technology. He aims to repeat that voyage in 2015. "We hope to do this annually," he said, "to show students how real world engineering works."