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MAE and Columbus Police partnership increases community safety

The Columbus Division of Police collaborated with an MAE capstone group to fix their shooting range system's critical defect. L-R: Lt. Steve Wilkinson, Deputy Chief Timothy Becker, Police Commander Bob Meader, Sgt. Doug Follmer, Mark Cecil, Maddie Elias, Assistant Professor Russell Marzette, Patrick Politowicz and James Roche.

For the Columbus Division of Police, a partnership with the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) came just in the nick of time.

Having the nation’s second largest non-federal shooting range has always been a point of pride for the division. The 26,550-square-foot range has allowed the City of Columbus to train 70 new police officers each year. To say that the system is heavily used is an understatement: the division runs it 20 hours each day for six days each week.

Unfortunately, the range also created a problem that the division was not prepared to handle. Each week, debris from more than 80,000 rounds of fire was building up in the shooting range’s conveyor system. Replete with lead, the bullet rounds were creating a toxic environment for those training to become the newest members of the city’s police force. The problem was also causing the entire shooting range to shut down until the bullet fragments were cleared.

That’s when mechanical engineering students Mark Cecil, Maddie Elias, Patrick Politowicz and James Roche jumped into action as a part of their spring capstone project.

“First, we purchased a GoPro camera to get a better look at the problem,” said Roche, who graduated this spring with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

The team’s video footage helped to quickly narrow down the major issue. Instead of rounds being decelerated by the bullet trap, landing on the conveyor system and being captured at the conveyor’s end, they were getting stuck within the conveyer belt system. After getting jammed, the bullet fragments were causing the entire system to malfunction.

“When it jams, it’s as loud as the seven levels of sin,” said Sergeant Doug Follmer

A well-crafted system redesign helps to decrease bullet debris buildup


The team's updated system back-end. 1) Holes were added to bolt into the back plate. 2) Side shields were bent at a 45 degree angle. 3) The ramp attaches to the vertical back plate; flanges were added for ease of installation. 4) Support attached to the side shields gave the ramp added stability.The MAE student team’s objective was clear: Eliminate a critical flaw in the system while staying within their university-provided budget of $1,000. To do this, the team first studied the conveyor system. They monitored where debris accumulated over time and even studied the relaxation of the conveyor belt itself.

There were two important findings: the back-end of the conveyor system was accumulating massive amounts of spent rounds; and the belt relaxed significantly over time.

To fix the first problem, the student team redesigned, fabricated and installed new system components from galvanized steel in order to create a new tail ramp and side shields. This replaced the shooting range’s original design, and it was a game changer.

The debris now travels the length of the 50-yard belt instead of piling up. The team’s integrated ramp and vertical back plate design also made it possible for the system to be more easily serviced.

Today, the updated conveyor belt system sends roughly five more kilograms of debris into the shooting range’s collection bucket each week.

Cecil, Elias, Politowicz and Roche also concluded that continuous operation of the conveyor belt could lead to the relaxation of the belt and a potential failure. This discovery confirmed that intermittent operation was the best plan to further prevent failures.

“This is a perfect example of a student team persevering through a challenging problem-solving and continuous improvement capstone project,” said Assistant Professor Russell K. Marzette Jr., who leads the department’s general capstone course each semester.

After installing the MAE student group’s updated ammo reclamation system and implementing their recommendations, much of the debris problem has disappeared.  

The MAE student capstone group has Police Commander Bob Meader to thank for their connection to this real-world problem. The collaboration began through to a friendship between Meader and Bob Rhoades, director of the College of Engineering’s multidisciplinary capstone program.

“This partnership has allowed us to dedicate more time to caring for the safety and well-being of the Columbus community and our employees,” said Meader. He hopes that this connection will lead to more teamwork between the city and the university.

This particular partnership will continue through next year.

Today, the back end of the system is fully functioning. The next MAE capstone group who works with the Columbus Division of Police will focus on improving the front-end and mid-sections of the system. A potentially redesigned vacuum system and front-end scraper could ensure that all forms of debris, including the bullet fragments coming from the division’s shotguns, are collected.

“I loved being able to use the skills that I’ve developed in my MAE courses, such as root-cause analysis and design evaluation, to support this industry-sponsored project,” said Maddie Elias, who also graduated this spring.

“Thanks to this collaboration, I’ll be able to take this real-world experience with me into my new career.” 


Kam King, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering