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'Super engineers' combine digital and mechanical in home automation inventions

Joseph Flaig

Oliver De Roeck and Callum Franks from PA Consulting's Top Cat team
Oliver De Roeck and Callum Franks from PA Consulting's Top Cat team

The innovative combinations of mechanical and digital systems on show at an IMechE apprentice challenge demonstrated a new breed of “super engineers”, the institution’s head of engineering has said.

A two-person team from PA Consulting came top above much larger groups at the IMechE Home Automation Challenge on Friday, their automatic pet food and water dispenser beating competition including a ‘smart’ parcel letterbox to cut down on missed deliveries, light-sensitive window blinds and two separate pill dispensers. 

The annual event is open to teams of apprentices from companies, colleges and training providers, with participants designing and manufacturing a product to automate a task in the home or garden.

The winning Top Cat team decided to focus on pets after doing market research. “We did a survey with a few people,” said team member Oliver De Roeck. “The owners didn’t like the chore of filling up the food twice a day… the Pet Station reduces the frequency that they have to do that.”

The device has two chambers – one for food, one for water – as well as a modular game attachment to keep pets occupied while owners are away. The food chamber uses an adapted earth auger-style spiral to automatically dispense dry food at times set by a mobile app, and the water tray includes in-built sensors to prevent overflowing.

The combination of technologies impressed the judges, but the team said it was rush to complete the project. The device was untested with an animal, after it was finished only the day before the competition. “We’ve been right up against it,” said De Roeck. 

The challenge showed an increasingly close link between digital and mechanical systems, said IMechE head of engineering Dr Jenifer Baxter. 

“This is something people are becoming more and more familiar with,” she said. “This is really how you see the integrated engineering start to happen – mechanical engineers need to work with electrical engineers, and software and digital engineers, and we can see that change happening in the young apprentices now.”

She added: “It’s amazing. The things that I see and the discussions I have with the young engineers – I just didn’t think like that… All of those different things start to combine together and we start to see these ‘super engineers’ coming through who have got all of these skills – in school they’re coding, they’re coding at home. This is a really natural part of developing new inventions and it’s just great, it’s exciting stuff.”

The progress makes it a “good time to be an engineer,” she said. 

Aston Martin’s Haven team, which designed and built the Parcel Smart device to stop customers missing deliveries and companies losing money, was highly commended. 


Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
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