PODCAST: Engineering is Application

11/15/2019

Maddie Rice

 

Meet our first grad school guest, Kevin Murphy! Kevin talks all about the transition from undergrad to grad school, robotics research, and interning abroad for a summer in Amsterdam!

Can’t get enough? Follow us on social media @uofigrainger

 

Transcript 

 

 

Maddie Rice  
Welcome to Engineering Is, a Grainger College of Engineering network podcast where we get to the root of STEM with Grainger Engineering students. I'm your host, Maddie Rice and today I am joined by Kevin Murphy. Yay!! Thunderous applause from the whole room. Kevin, how are you? 

Kevin Murphy  
I'm doing great. How are you? 

Maddie Rice  
I'm doing great. Thank you for asking. So, Kevin, why don't you give us just a little standard introduction of yourself, your name, your study?

Kevin Murphy  
Well, I'm Kevin Murphy. Um, I'm studying mechanical engineering with concentration in robotics. I'm first year grad student so I went to undergrad at University of Illinois as well. So I've been around for a little bit and got the opportunity to stay. I'm working in the Regular robotics lab, which is a new lab in the MechSE Department. 

Maddie Rice  
Okay, 

Kevin Murphy  
And a lot of what we do is building humanoid robotics. So we're just in up and running right now and doing some really interesting stuff there. Outside of classroom, I enjoy cooking. I used to do a lot of swing dancing and instructing on campus.

Maddie Rice  
At Newman? 

Kevin Murphy  
Oh, yes. 

Maddie Rice  
Oh my gosh!

Kevin Murphy  
Newman Dance Society

Maddie Rice  
I've done a few of those. 

Kevin Murphy  
Excellent. 

Maddie Rice  
Yeah. Good times, swinging times.

Kevin Murphy  
finger guns. 

Maddie Rice  
Very cool. So humanoid robotics. Is that what you're studying right now. So you're kind of focusing on in your internship is that what this is?

Kevin Murphy  
This is just research. So as I'm pursuing PhD. It's what I'll be concentrating on and try to implement,

Maddie Rice  
Okay.

Kevin Murphy  
What our goal is, is when we look at robotics, and we look at quantum pedal robotics, like the MIT Cheetah, Spot Mini from Boston Dynamics, a lot of those. All the designs that kind of converged towards one type of thing and Professor Park in the MechSE Department, who recently left, also has a similar quadra pedal robotic. But the humanoid design hasn't converged to something that's very efficient yet. 

Maddie Rice  
Okay.

Kevin Murphy  
So what we're trying to do is first design humanoid robotics. So we have this optimized design to make it able to function as a human, and also work with some sort of teli operation. Right now we see a lot of things that are they're not capable of operating in normal society, because they're just not intelligent enough. And other things that have so much like boss dynamics that it has a lot of programming a lot of stuff and it's very powerful, but it's still not quite what we need it to be. So the goal of our lab is putting a human in the mix or giving the robot human reflexes and the best way to describe this is say it's like Pacific Rim or real steel and both those we have a human and the humans movements kind of control what the robot does. And what our fun little twist is, is that we're also getting a feedback term from the robot. So when we have something that hits the robot and the robot starts to fall off balance, the human operator is also hit or pushed off balance a little bit. So they can react the situation, giving the robot reflexes if you will.

Maddie Rice  
Wow. That is crazy. And that's happening right here on this campus. 

Kevin Murphy  
Absolutely. 

Maddie Rice  
That is so cool. So how long have you been involved in that?

Kevin Murphy  
Um, this is a very new lab. It just started this semester. So we're getting everything up and running. We're redesigning robots, buying parts. I just had two shipments come in today, which was really exciting

Maddie Rice  
Two shipments of?

Kevin Murphy  
We have batteries, microprocessors, transceivers, a whole bunch of just robotic components to say what we're going to need for first prototypes and see if we can get some of our ideas working. Then once we get that we're going to start moving on to stuff that's actually size of human.

Maddie Rice  
That is so cool.

Kevin Murphy  
One thing that's interesting to add that I never thought about is the feedback to the robot is a little more nuanced than I originally thought. Because when we think about animals, they all move in different sizes, like an elephant can take a step every, you know, two seconds and it will be moving very quickly, then we also have a rabbit that takes, you know, several steps a second and moves the same pace. And the difference in these, the number of steps taken per second, the gate, is has to do with the natural frequency of the body and the leg, 

Maddie Rice  
Okay, 

Kevin Murphy  
and how fast they can move them back and forth. So if you're trying to control this robot with your own movement, if it's not the same size and mass as you are, it's going to have a different actual frequency. 

Maddie Rice  
Oh, 

Kevin Murphy  
So one thing with the feedback is it can also adjust for that. So if you're an industrial robot contraption trying to control a robot that's much bigger and more massive than you are. It will slow down your movements so you're not moving as quickly controversially, if it's a smaller robot with a fast frequency, it will actually help you move faster. So it's a it's a little fun thing that ever thought about until we started implementing it. But it's super cool.

Maddie Rice  
That is so interesting. So what are some places maybe we would see humanoid robotics like today, kind of in the real world, beyond research.

Kevin Murphy  
Right now it's a developing field like we've seen a couple companies are trying to make them for deliveries, trying to make them for personal assistants.

Maddie Rice  
My mind went to Amazon. I don't know. Yeah, I feel like I've done some reading on how Amazon uses like robotics in like shipping centers.

Kevin Murphy  
They definitely have robotics but not humanoid. 

Maddie Rice  
Okay.

Kevin Murphy  
Their situations are more industrial based, 

Maddie Rice  
Okay, 

Kevin Murphy  
But they do have a lot of really cool actually applications. 

Maddie Rice  
Okay, 

Kevin Murphy  
Um, the, the driving force behind our professor and his, his vision of these human robots came from a nuclear meltdown in Japan a couple years ago where the reactors are running for over 24 hours before, they had a critical time where they couldn't be stopped. And if anyone could have sent something in there to turn the reactors off, they could have saved a huge amount of damage, a huge catastrophe, but we just didn't have the technology. 

Maddie Rice  
Yeah. 

Kevin Murphy  
And the goal of this is to build a first responder. So we can say this is not a safe situation for a human. But we can totally send in this robot, we can totally send in just this remote thing. That's not a life. So we need to say go take care of this, whether it's fire or radiation, lack of oxygen, any of these things can deal with. So that's the driving force behind the research.

Maddie Rice  
Wow, that's an incredibly important driving force. Yeah, it's fun as well, though?

Kevin Murphy  
It's a good mix of everything.

Maddie Rice  
So is it a large team working on these robotics or is it just like a select few?

Kevin Murphy  
Right now, it's fairly small since it's a new lab. We have a couple of grad students, we just recently added a fourth, 

Maddie Rice  
Okay, 

Kevin Murphy  
and we're slowly getting that underway. We're still waiting for our lab to be finished. But it's really exciting, once we get it it's gonna be an amazing place.

Maddie Rice  
The Fantastic Four. Have you ever seen the movie Big Hero Six?

Kevin Murphy  
Absolutely. 

Maddie Rice  
I'm imagining that, a bunch of like cool kind of like 20 somethings just like you know, eating junk food and staying up late and building robots and fighting crime. Do you guys fight crime at all? I guess in theory, maybe someday

Kevin Murphy  
One day, Robocop basically. 

Maddie Rice  
Robocop? Yeah. Okay so what I'm getting so far in this podcast is that Robocop is real. And you're him. I've never seen the movie. Is Robocop a person? Like,

Kevin Murphy  
Yeah, it's a character.

Maddie Rice  
What is Robocop? That's what this podcast is all about. It's a thinly veiled mission for me to learn what Robocop is. So far, not doing great, but I'm going to keep trying until I figure it out. Okay, so Kevin, what is like a typical day in the life for you?

Kevin Murphy  
Typical day in the life,  I try to make it to the gym early in the morning.

Maddie Rice  
Okay, how early is early?

Kevin Murphy  
Between like six and eight. 

Maddie Rice  
Okay.

Kevin Murphy  
So relatively early and also depends on you know, did you go to bed after 3am?

Maddie Rice  
Are you a morning person you think or?

Kevin Murphy  
Definitely not.

Maddie Rice  
Same. 

Kevin Murphy  
But it's a it's definitely important in keeping health and keeping a life in perspective. So definitely try to keep that going. 

Maddie Rice  
Sure. 

Kevin Murphy  
Um, after that homework and classes, get some time in research. You know, it's pretty, pretty common. I've recently been offered a job which I accepted with the Army Corps of Engineers in Champaign.

Maddie Rice  
Wow, very cool. Congratulations!

Kevin Murphy  
Thank you. So I'll be taking 20 hours a week and working there and their robotics section and also going to school full time. So it's an increase, decrease my free time a little bit, but I'm definitely a worthwhile endeavor, a lot of good experience and good support. 

Maddie Rice  
Okay. That's me snapping and congratulations to you. 

Kevin Murphy  
Thank you. 

Maddie Rice  
That's very cool. So do you work out at the ARC still? 

Kevin Murphy  
ARC or CRCE, depends on how busy one is versus the other. 

Maddie Rice  
You live on campus? 

Kevin Murphy  
Yes. 

Maddie Rice  
Very nice. Would you say that your relationship with the campus has changed since being not an undergrad anymore?

Kevin Murphy  
Absolutely. 

Maddie Rice  
Really? How so?

Kevin Murphy  
With changing from undergrad to graduate, since you know a lot less people, it's not as entertaining being in the same place as used to be. I have a lot of good memories, but it's sometimes hard to work there. Because you either know everyone and it's hard to get work done or it's just not the same. So I'm definitely finding myself kind of stepping back from a lot of the leadership roles from undergrad whether it was running the innovation studio, which is the mechanical engineering or the MechSE maker space where we have 3D printers, laser cutters, water jets, wood shop, things like that, or stepping back from other leadership positions, whether it's in swing dance club that I mentioned or other. So trying to spend more time on personal development. I'm trying to make sure my education is there, make sure I'm taking care of myself, my health versus making sure society is doing well and that sort of thing.

Maddie Rice  
Right. Okay, so speaking of campus and Champaign-Urbana, so I'm a townie. I grew up here, and I go to school here. And I'm always curious what other students think of Champaign when they first come here, because you're not from around here at all, are you?

Kevin Murphy  
No, I'm from the suburbs of Washington, DC. So, coming out here seems very much like a large cornfield to me. 

Maddie Rice  
Okay. 

Kevin Murphy  
I know a lot of people complain about not having anything to do in town, which I don't think is true. There's definitely things you can do around Champaign-Urbana area, and there's definitely things within driving distance that you can do whether it's driving or running up to Chicago or St. Louis or anything like that. But, man close by its cornfields forever, disconcertingly flat.

Maddie Rice  
It's flat. It's very flat, which is great if you're a runner apparently.

Kevin Murphy  
Great for biking.

Maddie Rice  
I don't reap the rewards of that perk because I do not run and I never will. But you know if that's your thing, are you a runner?

Kevin Murphy  
I'm definitely not. Cardio is evil.

Maddie Rice  
Evil honestly, getting that tattooed on my forearm or something

Kevin Murphy  
Life motto.

Maddie Rice  
Yeah, life motto. Cardio is evil. So you're from Washington, DC and you've been in Champion for how many years now then?

Kevin Murphy  
Um, this is my fifth year here. 

Maddie Rice  
Do you go home often?

Kevin Murphy  
Um, I make it home usually for a week or two over winter break and then a little bit the beginning and end of each summer. Usually the middle I end up either working somewhere or out of town doing something so

Maddie Rice  
Okay. Well, speaking of working out of town, I heard that you spent some time even further from Washington, DC recently.

Kevin Murphy  
Oh yes. Last summer I had the amazing opportunity to work for a company MX 3D in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. It's a very fascinating company. It's, they're metal 3d printers that use industrial robotic arms and welders to create artwork, structures and many other things. The best way for me to describe this is it's a MIG welder for anyone that doesn't know what it is, is imagine it's pretty printer or a hot glue gun and those work by putting you know a piece of hot glue gun and pushing it through a heated extruded that melts it and it comes out liquid and then slowly solidifies. 3d printers work the same way well, FDM 3d printers with the same way, of putting like a thin plastic filament like weed whacker filament through a heated extruded and that melts onto the next layer then solidifies. 

Maddie Rice  
Okay, 

Kevin Murphy  
The only difference between the metal 3d printer that we used or the MIG welder and this is that instead of melting a thinmetal wire with heat extruder, it puts a large current through it and that current will heat up the wire and melt it in little bits and has an inert gas flowing around it to keep the flow steady and keep any nasty formations and oxides in form. So it's, it's pretty cool. They put these printers on where they put this welder on the end of the robotic arm and they just print it from there. So this is a startup that I found, honestly from a video in Facebook, at like three in the morning. 

Maddie Rice  
Cool. 

Kevin Murphy  
I said, I'm already gonna be up till you know, midnight anyway, until very late anyway, so might as well just email them my resume and ask if they have any internships. 

Maddie Rice  
Wow. 

Kevin Murphy  
And they emailed me back in the next two days, so it was definitely a godsend.

Maddie Rice  
That's so cool. I gotta start, forget LinkedIn and handshake, I've got to start stalking Facebook pages at 3am. That's awesome. So they got back to you super quickly?

Kevin Murphy  
Oh, yeah. It's a very small company. So the instead of going to like a large corporation trying to figure out a place they just said, Hey, this mechanical engineer also has computer science minor so he can work on both aspects of that, he's experienced in design so we can use them for basically anything we need. So let's reach out. And it worked super well. I'm going to give a quick shout out to the iPeng department. 

Maddie Rice  
Oh, yeah. Love them.

Kevin Murphy  
I came to them with this job offer for, you know, moving, you know, over into Europe and just working by myself and said, Hey, do you have any support, do you have anything you can do and they helped me out so much. They're fantastic human beings and they're, they've really allowed me to have a fantastic experience. So especially Meredith.

Maddie Rice  
Meredith. Shout out Meredith. They are so cool. That's so that's really awesome that you were able to like get support from something that wasn't even, you know, started from a program that they offered necessarily.

Kevin Murphy  
So it was super impressive. And I was super surprised, but it made it extremely useful and they still checked in with me while I was over there to see how I was doing. I ended up taking the study abroad class. So they also saw my updates so I can email back and forth. 

Maddie Rice  
Wow, 

Kevin Murphy  
They are pretty useful. They checked in when I arrived. My landlord wasn't in the country. tThat's a that's a whole story of a crazy landlord. But the department was in contact with me and they're helpful. So it's, it's a it's a blessing to be to have iPeng in your corner.

Maddie Rice  
Yeah, that's an understatement. That's such a good point to bring up because they are almost forgotten in some respects with stuff like that. But they're, they're really a great, great resource. So what was it like being in Amsterdam, you were there for how long? 

Kevin Murphy  
I was there for about three months. I left about four days after I graduated from undergrad. And I arrived 40 hours before driving back to school.

Maddie Rice  
Oh my gosh. 

Kevin Murphy  
So it was it was basically all summer. 

Maddie Rice  
You were there all summer.

Kevin Murphy  
I mean, hey, if I'm going over, I'm spending as much time as I can.

Maddie Rice  
You've got to do it right. Props to you. 

Kevin Murphy  
Thank you. 

Maddie Rice  
Were you like a foodie blogger over there like, like all the other study abroad kids?

Kevin Murphy  
Definitely had a different experience than a lot of study abroad kids. Um, a lot of times when you're study abroad, you're taking classes pass/fail, and you're only in class two, three days a week. Since I was working 40 hours a week, five days a week, I definitely didn't have the classic experience of every weekend I'm going to Spain or Portugal or something childhood. You know, I got a couple of times got the Germany got to Belgium a few times and just made it around the Netherlands as much as I could. But I didn't have the class experience. I definitely found I was spoiled being in the Netherlands, the Dutch culture there, they speak Dutch fluently and 95% of the population speaks English fluently. 

Maddie Rice  
Okay, 

Kevin Murphy  
So you can just walk up and say Hey guys, um English, please. And they're like, Hey dude, what's up?

Maddie Rice  
No way! Actually? 

Kevin Murphy  
Actually. It was pretty spectacular. 

Maddie Rice  
Wow.

Kevin Murphy  
So I got to meet a lot of cool people there, do a lot of cool things at work. There are some Dutch people I worked with, a couple of French people, some polish and Italian. So it was it was a great mix and at work we spoke English because it was

Maddie Rice  
Sort of like your intersecting language?

Kevin Murphy  
Passport language, there we go. 

Maddie Rice  
Okay.

Kevin Murphy  
Yeah, everyone spoke that at work, which was very easy. You made a very nice, the grocery shopping was a little difficult. 

Maddie Rice  
Why is that?

Kevin Murphy  
Um the cuisine was very different. And it was all written in Dutch so you'd go up you're like, I have no idea what this is. You pull out a translator and something called beef salad and it's definitely not meat. So you're just confused.

Maddie Rice  
What is beef salad?

Kevin Murphy  
Beef salad. It's actually potato salad that they just put little bits of like corned beef in. 

Maddie Rice  
What?! I definitely expected just like a can of tuna but beef or something like tuna salad that's where my mind went.

Kevin Murphy  
But yeah, it's very nice in the sense that you got to try things, saying you know, if I'm only here for a couple months, I'm just going to buy this. So you know, $3 might as well figure out what it is like flay American is their named after America even though it's not consumed here, but it's on their version of beef tartare. It's like shredded raw beef with spices and pretty amazing. I'm pretty sure the Dutch national cuisine means it's deep fried and covered in mayonaise. So that was pretty spectacular. 

Maddie Rice  
That's my passport language.

Kevin Murphy  
It was pretty spectacular place.

Maddie Rice  
That's great. And you said you went to Belgium for a time or two. Where were you in Belgium?

Kevin Murphy  
In Belgium, I spent a couple days in Brussels and the weekend another weekend in Bruges?

Maddie Rice  
I did that this last summer too. Brussels and then Bruges for like a couple of days each. Yeah. Bruges is um, how would you describe Bruges?

Kevin Murphy  
Um, I'd say it's one of the most picturesque towns I've ever been in. 

Maddie Rice  
Totally. Yeah. It's like a puzzle.

Kevin Murphy  
Yeah,

Maddie Rice  
Because it's just like a like chocolate everywhere and there's like horses and

Kevin Murphy  
It's kind of a fairy tale.

Maddie Rice  
Yeah, there's like swans everywhere.

Kevin Murphy  
Swans everywhere. The canals are beautiful. There's flowers and ivys growing around

Maddie Rice  
Everyone rides a bike. 

Kevin Murphy  
Well, that's just that area of the world. Everyone rides bikes, like in the Netherlands, there's 16 million people in the Netherlands and 18 million bikes. 

Maddie Rice  
What? 

Kevin Murphy  
Yep, that's 2 million more bikes. 

Maddie Rice  
How does that even make sense? They're on it.

Kevin Murphy  
It's a couple different things. One is the infrastructure is built for biking, like I never got in a car while I was in the Netherlands.

Maddie Rice  
Wow. Really?

Kevin Murphy  
Except for once when someone was driving me to a grocery store, but the rest of the time you just jump on a bike. You can get anywhere in the city within half an hour on a bike the ferriess are free for going across the river. And there's always bike lanes in the street so you can get anywhere you need to. It's verycommon. Some of the reason there's so many bikes is people will have bikes in different cities. So if you live in Rotterdam but you work in Amsterdam, 

Maddie Rice  
Okay.

Kevin Murphy  
You just have your Amsterdam bike in Rotterdam bike and then you have a race bike for the weekend. So things like that and the number adds up quickly.

Maddie Rice  
Oh my gosh, so did you have your own bike while you were there?

Kevin Murphy  
Yeah, I ended up renting a bike from a company called swap feets as well which is super convenient and made my life a lot easier not trying to figure out how to buy a bike and how to resell I could just say I need this for three months. Get there, use it. It's fantastic.

Maddie Rice  
That is fantastic. And that's everywhere that kind of part the world?

Kevin Murphy  
Yeah, exactly. It's it's pretty common for most area of the world. Especially with like the Dutch culture extends into Belgium because you have the Flemish side and you have a French speaking side. So you definitely see a lot of over bleed in those areas. And it's very common to make you know, it's three hour train ride between the cities so it's not like here trying to go to Canada is a huge endeavor trying to go to another country is a very large endeavor. It's casually on the weekend or after work going, hey, I'm going to go to Bruges or I'm going to go to Brussels and just head down, it's great public transportation. 

Maddie Rice  
Do you think that was the biggest difference between here and there?

Kevin Murphy  
Infrastructure wise, maybe. There's also you know, huge differences in architecture, just kind of the design in general and how people live their life but say the cultures are very different on a more fundamental level.

Maddie Rice  
You felt like you were in a different country, even though English was kind of what you were hearing a lot of the time? 

Kevin Murphy  
Certainly, absolutely, um, people act very differently. For instance, like my first time there, I've met up with a couple of people that had emailed a few times and their view of what's acceptable to speak in society first meet someone's very different like the Dutch are known to be very blunt. 

Maddie Rice  
Okay. Okay.

Kevin Murphy  
But I appreciate that. So like the first time we met, they're like, hey tell us about this law that was just passed in America, tell us about Trump. And then they would like make fun of it or poke fun at your views. And they're definitely not politically correct as we'd see it in America like they could, they would make jokes about other nationalities within the Netherlands or within the, within Europe, so they would make a joke about a Polish friend, or about Spaniards always being late or things like that. And there was no mean hearted spirit behind it. And I think that was a huge thing where people were a little bit more laid back, people weren't freaking out all the time, unless you were in the bike lane and they would freak out. That's another story.

Maddie Rice  
That's very fun. That's always interesting, the sort of humor of other places around the world like I would love to see like a like a Amsterdam comedy or something, and just see what the differences because people sometimes get offended by stuff like The Office here, so.

Kevin Murphy  
It's, it was honestly a little refreshing to have people have I'm not gonna say thicker skin, but I'd say it'd be less offended by specific things. And people will be more open to conversations and discussions where they don't necessarily believe or follow your beliefs. You have those disagreements, but you could discuss it and they wouldn't judge who you are as a person, what you said or how you view the world so it's a fantastic experience to be able to see how different people live that.

Maddie Rice  
It definitely sounds like you got some really insightful like fresh perspective going over there. 

Kevin Murphy  
Absolutely.

Maddie Rice  
Very fruitful summer for you.

Kevin Murphy  
Very fruitful summer. Great time. Definitely learned to roll with the punches.

Maddie Rice  
That's a great life lesson. Okay, so every episode, I ask my guest what is engineering? If you could describe engineering and just like one word or short phrase, what would you say?

Kevin Murphy  
I would say engineering is application.

Maddie Rice  
Application.

Kevin Murphy  
That's a little bit deeper than when it first comes across because if you look at science without engineering and the ability to apply this, you know, fundamental truth of the nature we live in, this science is just philosophy really. So it's being able to do something with it, and saying, you know, instead of being like, oh, I understand how combustion works being like, we're going to build an internal combustion engine or, you know, we understand the friction, but how is that going to affect airplanes and drag and things like that. And that applies to all the different fields of engineering on whether it's systems, aerospace, MechE, computers, electrical, anything. And even beyond engineering is how our knowledge can be applied, how our life experiences can be applied, how our relationships with others can be applied. So I know that got a little bit deeper than, 

Maddie Rice  
No I love that! And that's so true too. Wow, I feel very informed right now. So engineering is application. That's where we're at right now with my, are we friends now? 

Kevin Murphy  
Basically.

Maddie Rice  
My new friend Kevin. Oh my gosh, so I learned what engineering is and I got a new friend. This has been a great episode. Well guys, thanks so much for listening to Engineering Is. You can catch us every Friday. And while you're at it, check out the other podcast on our network Illinois Innovators hosted by Mike Koon. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @uofigrainger and we'll see you guys next time!