Home Automation Challenge 2018: Top Cat proves its top dog

A team of engineering apprentices has won this year’s Home Automation Challenge with their ingenious design for an ‘automated pet station’.

Home Automation Challenge 2018 - Six teams reached this year’s HAC final, which was held at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry - image courtesy of The Manufacturer’s staff photographer Calum McCarron.
Six teams reached this year’s HAC final, which was held at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry – image courtesy of The Manufacturer’s staff photographer Calum McCarron.

For the past four years, the annual Home Automation Challenge (HAC) has given apprentices the opportunity to compete in an innovative design and manufacturing challenge to improve an everyday home or garden device.

Organised by the Young Members Committee of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), the challenge is open to teams of apprentices from companies, colleges and training providers of engineering and manufacturing technologies.

As well as designing and manufacturing a product, this year each team was required to submit a report which included a design specification, manufacturing instructions, a user manual and a business case for the mass production and sale of the product.

This year saw 10 teams enter and six reach the final, which was held at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry, with products ranging from automatic window blinds to ‘smart’ mirrors.

“Home Automation Challenge 2018 presented us with an exceptional group of young engineers who designed innovative home technologies that combined digital and mechanical engineering skills. Our future engineers are an inspiration,” said Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of engineering at IMechE and one of the 12 HAC judges.

“Virtually nothing these days is purely electronic or mechanical,” noted IMechE’s president elect, Ian Joesbury. “The fact that the teams have universally looked across technologies and disciplines is fantastic; I’m very impressed with all their efforts.”

Food for thought

Home Automation Challenge 2018 - Top Cat’s Callum Franks and Oliver De Roeck, alongside award presenter, Ian Joesbury – president elect, IMechE - image courtesy of The Manufacturer’s staff photographer Calum McCarron.
Top Cat’s Callum Franks and Oliver De Roeck, alongside award presenter, Ian Joesbury – president elect, IMechE – image courtesy of The Manufacturer’s staff photographer Calum McCarron.

The winning design came courtesy of Top Cat – a trio of engineers from PA Consulting Group. After considering a number of different focus areas – such as assisting the elderly or children, the team opted for an automated pet station due to its feasibility in terms of time and team capabilities.

Tapping into owners’ anxieties about leaving their pets alone, the device has two chambers – one for food, one for water, as well as several modular puzzle attachments to help keep pets occupied and entertained while owners are away.

“It was quite a challenging project as we both have different days at college each week,” explained third year mechanical apprentice, Oliver De Roeck. “As a result of that, we could only work together one day a week which meant the project took a lot longer than expected.”

First year electrical apprentice, Callum Franks, demonstrated to The Manufacturer how the system worked.

“Food is moved from the hopper to the tray via an auger-style spiral to automatically dispense food at times set by our custom-built mobile app. Water flows from a separate chamber down into the water tray,” he explained.

The station has a pair of important safety features: an in-built sensor to prevent water from overflowing and flooding the surrounding area, and automated alerts sent to the owner via the app should hopper volume fall below a certain level.

Currently, the food dispensed is dry, but the device could potentially be adapted to accommodate wet food, Franks said, though issues around cleanliness and the food drying out would need to be overcome.

Home Automation Challenge 2018 - Top Cat’s automated pet station, with chocolate candy in place of dry pet food - image courtesy of The Manufacturer’s staff photographer Calum McCarron.
Top Cat’s automated pet station, with chocolate candy in place of dry pet food – image courtesy of The Manufacturer’s staff photographer Calum McCarron.

“Taking part was a fantastic opportunity to show off the skills that we’re developing as apprentices and then to be able to apply them to specific situations,” Franks said. “To win was an enormous privilege, especially with the level of competition this year.”

Alongside the Judges’ prize, Top Cats also received the highly-coveted Peer Review Award – presented to them by Ken Young, the MTC’s technology director.

First class delivery 

Haven, the five-strong team from Aston Martin, received the Judges’ Highly Commended Award for their ‘smart’ parcel delivery system.

In the UK, upwards of 12% of deliveries fail first time, costing the industry an estimated £1bn in re-deliveries. For those who receive a ‘sorry we missed you’ card, the result is typically an inconvenient trip to the local sorting office – which isn’t always that local.

To combat this, Haven developed ‘Parcel Smart’ – a stylish and safe delivery unit featuring an intelligent security reader.

The team’s William Savage explained that the smart (RFID) pass key allows only those with the correct access to open the unit and deliver your goods, and helps eliminate the worry of having to leave parcels in a ‘safe location’ in the garden.

“It means no more stolen, damaged or lost deliveries,” Savage commented. “Furthermore, the metal latch on the back offers an additional layer of security, capable of being locked in place when deliveries aren’t expected to occur.”

Whether the metal latch is open or not, Haven’s innovative design allows letters to still pass through unhindered.

Worthy of celebration 

Also competing were Endeavour and WMTCA, both representing the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC). Endeavour’s automated pill dispenser can deliver pills at set times and has been optimised to accommodate pills of varying sizes.

Home Automation Challenge 2018 - Every team had to present to their peers. Here, Leonardo Airborne & Space Systems’ Jonah Quinton demonstrates M.A.D.D.Y., The Pilgrims’ 3D printed, automatic pill dispenser - image courtesy of The Manufacturer’s staff photographer Calum McCarron.
Every team had to present to their peers. Here, Leonardo Airborne & Space Systems’ Jonah Quinton demonstrates M.A.D.D.Y., The Pilgrims’ 3D printed, automatic pill dispenser – image courtesy of The Manufacturer’s staff photographer Calum McCarron.

WMTCA’s i-Mirror displays various information such as the date and time, the weather, traffic reports and the day’s news headlines via a customisable interface.

The i-Mirror also features a hidden automated shelf system, ideal for keeping harmful medicines or such like out of children’s reach.

Like the MTC, Leonardo Airborne & Space Systems also had two teams competing, The Pilgrims and Curt & Rod.

The Pilgrims’ also had an automatic pill dispenser, though had opted for a programmable carousel – rather than tubular – design, capable of holding up to four-days’ worth of pills.

Curt & Rod’s automatic blinds react to the intensity of light in a room, opening or closing to maintain a constant level of brightness. Future development could see the blinds being voice-controlled.

After touring the exhibition space with his wife, the day’s guest of honour, Lord Mayor of Coventry John Blundell, declared that every team was to be congratulated, not just the prize winners.

“The Home Automation Challenge demonstrates to businesses exactly what apprentices can do and the value they bring. As a nation, we are beginning to truly appreciate skilled people like engineers and apprentices, and in this room, are individuals who embody both,” he noted.