Tuesday, August 1, 2017

My Summer Internship

As part of the TEPS program, MSc Candidate Elisabeth Smith has spent her summer working at local space engineering firm MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, better known to us as MDA. She relates her experiences here.

By Elisabeth Smith

This past May, I started a part-time internship with engineering company MacDonald, Dettwiler & and Associates (or, MDA for short) in Brampton, Ontario – located not too far from York University. MDA was founded in 1969 by John S. MacDonald and Werner Dettwiler, and is likely best known for their development of communications and robotics systems. Perhaps their best-known product is the Canadarm, the robotic arm present on both the International Space Station and the Space Shuttles that is used to grab and move payloads from different spacecraft, especially for the assembly of the ISS.  It also has cameras on it that allows for the inspection of spacecraft.  After the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003, this became a very important step in future manned space missions. 

Being able to work for such a fantastic company with such an incredible position in the space industry was a very exciting prospect indeed. I would be helping develop a robotic arm that will be used in aircraft manufacturing – a very good fit for me, given my prior internship experience with business jet manufacturer Gulfstream Aerospace. I have always dreamed of working in the space industry, and being at MDA is a great way to achieve that goal. I am also very interested in robotics, and being able to combine my interests in space and robotics was perfect. 

My work has been very exciting. I work directly with the robot, with responsibilities such as determining operation areas for the robot to function within, and actually operating the robot, in order to test different parameters to find the optimal settings for its use. Of course, my very first task was to learn to operate the robot. I learned to do this using two different methods – using a text based user interface where I type in specific commands, and using the graphical user interface program (GUI) that the team developed for this robot. Learning both systems offered valuable experience. The text based program helped sharpen some of my programming skills. The GUI is a much simpler program – which is exactly what we want. This robot will likely be operated by users who do not have extensive programming experience, so learning to develop a simple program that is very user-friendly is also great. In the future, this will hopefully give me a new perspective when working on projects to be sure that the product is easy to use for anyone.  Being able to work directly with the robot has been a great opportunity. I have always loved being able to work with something hands-on, rather than being confined to just a computer and desk. Watching the robot come to life and perform its task is always a pleasure. 

The project is also exciting as it is very new. In aircraft manufacturing, much of the work is done by hand, rather than with robots as it is in the automotive industry. Having a robot doing these tasks allows for greater consistency in quality, which in turn reduces costs associated with reworking faulty items, or items that do not meet certain requirements. Ergonomics and employee safety is also a very important consideration – while the task this robot performs isn’t very dangerous to employees, the task, when done by hand, has a higher risk of inducing a repetitive stress injury, a type of musculoskeletal injury that occurs when a certain motion is repeated many times. Introducing a new robot to the industry is very exciting, but also hopefully very helpful.

The culture at MDA is a very good fit for me – very relaxed, but with just the right amount of professionalism. The employees are very friendly. The cafeteria at the Brampton location is wonderful as well. The menu is always very diverse and the food tastes great – I quickly began to look forward to Curry Wednesdays! My fellow interns are also great. At lunch time, the interns always sit together, where we discuss everything from our projects at MDA, to current events and sports.  They all come from various fields of study and different universities, so conversing with them is always interesting.

Overall, this internship has been great. I’ve learned valuable lessons, including technical information about the design and operation of robots, as well as customer satisfaction knowledge, such as the importance of designing a robot that cost-efficient and easy to use. The experiences gained from this internship will hopefully serve me well in my future endeavors, and lead to a very exciting career.

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