February 24, 2024


Despite innovative devices for pouring coffee and transferring doughnuts to plates, Tim Hortons won’t be calling anytime soon.

At the Heath Robinson Demo Day at the Cambridge campus on Nov. 13, students in the second-year engineering technology program built elaborate sequence mechanisms that could, in the end, pour coffee into a cup and place a doughnut on a plate. However, the contraptions were far from simple or efficient.

William Heath Robinson was an English cartoonist and illustrator who was known for drawing ridiculously complicated machines for achieving simple objectives.

As part of their problem-solving and design class, the students were put into eight different teams and were told to design and build a Heath Robinson structure in four weeks. Each team constructed their design by using a variety of materials such as wood, cardboard, string and cups. Some even added dominos. A minimum of eight sections were incorporated in each of the team’s designs and additional marks were given if extra steps were integrated, as well as if the students didn’t have to help during the process.

The teams used software called Arduino. By writing code beforehand, the Arduino electronic boards that were attached to the structures initiated the various steps. Each mechanism started by having a ball pushed by a small plastic arm, starting the entire sequence. Some designs were complex, like team seven’s. They built their design to mimic an assembly line. Some were very creative, such as group one’s, whose design integrated a small roller-coaster twirl-like section.

But it wasn’t an easy process. It was challenging getting each mechanism to run consistently. The teams quickly learned that the only thing consistent was trial and error.

“It’s always the small things that cause trouble,” said Graem Paterson, a group member from team one. “You think that doesn’t happen very often, but trust me, it builds up. It really is a challenge getting repeatability to work.”

The judging began at 9:30 a.m. as Henry Kastner, the professor of the problem-solving and design class, inspected each team’s structure. He also kept track of the students who had to help during the process, as well as how long the sequence took.

Other faculty members and students from around the campus curiously observed each of the team’s projects. Ballots were handed out to the faculty members so they could vote on their favourite Heath Robinson design. As the event went on, the ballots were counted and team six was declared the winner. Group members Egzon Ozmani, Mohammad Qasem, Tyler Cressman, John Balsillie and Ali Zahovi were happy but surprised that they had won.

“We had a blast,” Ozmani said. Group members joked about the sleepless nights, since it took them 12 hours to build the mechanism.

It was clear that team six, along with the other teams, enjoyed the project and its challenges.

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