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Final design renderings for the Boeing Set Point Block

Students Engineer a Better Tool for Boeing

By Donna Emert

Fresh perspective, focus and real-world incentive are often the recipe for problem solving.

The University of Idaho’s 2011 Engineering EXPO, set for April 29, showcases student capstone designs that meet real world challenges.

One student design formerly featured at EXPO has resulted in a more effective manufacturing tool for Boeing.

The speed with which the innovation traveled from academia into the hands of Boeing machinists also reflects a stronger emphasis on technology transfer at the university.

In 2008, the Boeing Company proposed that a University of Idaho student capstone design team develop a new set point block for use in milling Boeing airplane parts. The device is used to accurately set the head of the cutter on the mill, which is used to machine wing skins and other aircraft components, and so must be extremely accurate.

Engineers at Boeing identified several flaws in the device currently in use, including its measurement accuracy and its susceptibility to damage from wear as operators set the device to zero point.

“Setting the zero point is simply setting a reference so that the machine knows where it is starting in relation to the raw material it is going to cut,” explains Brandon Butsick, a member of the undergraduate student team who reworked the design.

Butsick is now a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the university and an engineer at Idaho Engineering Works.

In many ways, the students were able to adjust the design to meet real-world challenges that may not have been considered in the original.

“In the factory, where these blocks are regularly used, the area under the mill is dimly lit due to the overhead machinery,” says Butsick. “The original block had a very small face with tiny numbers making it difficult to see in less than ideal situations. The improved block has a larger face and large, easy-to-read numbers, as well as a built-in light to light the face in dim conditions.”

But the greatest advancement over the original block design was improved durability and accuracy. The original block worked well when new, and when used precisely as designed. In a factory setting however, dirt and wear decreased the block’s accuracy and made it difficult to set correctly.

“Our team developed a block that utilized sealed bearings to keep dirt and debris out of the precision components, to keep the block accurate in the factory environment,” says Butsick. “We also added components that could be replaced much cheaper and easier, allowing the blocks to be used much longer, lowering the long-term cost.”

The students’ design improvements inspired further innovations by Bowers Precision Measurement Tools in England, resulting in a highly accurate device to be used in production by Boeing. The device currently is being tested, and is expected to be in full implementation by fall 2011. The tool will be marketed in the U.S. by Fred V. Fowler Company, and will be available to machinists worldwide.

“Until recently, the university’s intellectual property rules made it challenging for this kind of product development to take place,” said Boeing engineer Eric Gunstone. “The recent development of a stronger emphasis on technology transfer made the collaboration possible.” 

The Boeing Set-Point Block

The objective of this project was to create an improved design to replace the "set point blocks" currently in use throughout Boeing's manufacturing facilities. The set point block is a device used by milling machine operators to accurately set the zero point on the head of the mill.


The engineering students who designed the new block include: Brandon Butsick, Ben Shropshire, Nathan Thomas and Abe Shryock, who worked with Boeing engineers to produce a prototype of the device in 2009.

The team won the "Award for Excellence in Booth Presentation" at the 2009 Engineering Design EXPO.

The student team's final prototype for the Boeing Set Point Block

Top Photo: Final design renderings prepared by Bowers Precision Measurement Tools.

The 20th Annual Engineering Design EXPO will be held Friday, April 26, 2013. All EXPO events are free and open to the public and take place at the Student Union Building on the Moscow campus.

Please continue to visit the EXPO site for more information on this year's projects.