MSU Engineering Student Builds Steam Engine

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December 18, 2012

Being a mechanical engineer is rooted in Russ Tindall's early childhood. "When I was very young, my dad read to me from my favorite book, The Way Things Work, by David Macaulay," says Tindall. "This book fascinated me as I visualized the mechanics of how things worked. As a toddler, my curiosity led to exploration and the near-destruction of several small kitchen appliances."

Russ Tindall and Roy BailiffIn an effort to encourage his curiosity of mechanical things—and to discourage him from taking apart home appliances—Tindall's dad, Bob, would search out used engines on anything from weed whackers to lawn mowers.

"I took the engines apart until I was able to open the crankcase and see inside. Turning the engine over by hand enabled me to see all of the moving parts and I really grasped an understanding of the mechanical process. I was fascinated by the engines then and have since taken a number of engines apart, fixed or redesigned them, and put them back together. I am currently driving one of my handiworks."

That early training has helped Tindall accomplish many of his goals. He earned his bachelor's degree in December and has accepted a job offer with Marathon Petroleum Corporation.

"I always wanted to build a steam engine; I bought the blueprints in high school," says Tindall who went to Romeo High School in Romeo, Mich. However, he put the project on hold as he entered MSU and began work on a mechanical engineering degree. Then opportunity came knocking when the college bought a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) mill for the engineering machine shop.

"Because I went to a high school with a great vocational trades program, I knew about using a CNC mill when many other students had no experience with it," says Tindall, who worked for ME technician Roy Bailiff in the college's engineering machine shop for four years. So Tindall dug out his blueprints and started working in earnest on the project in January. He drew the parts needed for the engine using industry standard computer-aided design (CAD) software that is used in a required ME course. He then took the part file down to the CNC mill, uploaded it into the mill's controller and the machine made the part.

It may sound simple but, Tindall says, "Every single step was a challenge. One particular problem was that I did not have that much experience with fixturing. That's the part that holds the piece you are trying to mill."

The process Tindall used to build the steam engine will be documented, and information will be made available, so other students will have a step-by-step reference for making parts using the CNC mill.

Russ Tindall with steam engine at Design DayBailiff hopes this project will jump-start more classes in post-processing and lead to training programs on using the CNC mill and other machine shop equipment. "I try to keep on top of equipment trends," says Bailiff. "When you look at what manufacturing is doing, you see that a lot of it is returning to the United States because of the kinds of equipment, like a CNC mill, that are available in the states. This type of equipment is making it happen. I believe if you can show our future engineers how parts are made and even give them some experience making parts on the equipment, they will be better engineers."

One day, Tindall hopes to use his steam engine to power a small boat on one of Michigan's inland lakes. He also plans to exhibit it at a steam engine show this summer.

Tindall's project was on display at the MSU Union during the college's Design Day on December 7.

Check out the video! (19 sec YouTube)