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Zachary Kaplan

Bright, young mind reaches new heights with engineering industry experience

Zachary Kaplan knows that he was called to become an engineer.

Zachary Kaplan

Zachary Kaplan stands in front of a Wheelift® vehicle used to transport heavy machinery in manufacturing. As part of his internship with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Robotics Internship Program, Kaplan investigated the feasibility of changing motors in the vehicles.

“I love the collaborative aspect of working with a team toward a common goal,” Kaplan said. “Robotics can be the solution to many of the crises facing our planet.”

He traces his interest in STEM back to Space Camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, which he attended in fourth grade.

“I had an amazing experience. After that, I knew that I wanted to be part of the science community,” Kaplan recalled. In middle and high school Kaplan spent six years involved in a FIRST Robotics team (1086 Blue Cheese). That same team became three-time World Championship competitors; and, during his senior year of high school, winners of the 2016 World Championship FIRST Robotics Competition. More than 78,500 students on 3,140 teams from 24 different countries competed during the 2016 season.

Now an undergraduate student in electrical engineering at Virginia Tech, Kaplan reached even higher achievements during his internship with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Robotics Internship Program.

The Robotics Internship Program is an opportunity for college students and recent graduates to intern with public agencies and private companies for the continued development of the robotics technical and engineering workforce. Kaplan’s competitive selection for the program is an impressive success for a rising sophomore.

“Being chosen for this opportunity was like winning the lottery. I feel very lucky and grateful to learn from industry professionals,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan completed his internship in Waverly, Iowa, at Wheelift®, a manufacturing company in the Doerfer Companies family. Wheelift builds custom heavy-lift vehicles used in energy generation, naval, and aerospace manufacturing. Depending on the type of vehicle, the transporters can carry loads of 500 tons or more. The company is considering changing motors in its heavy-lift vehicles. Kaplan was charged with determining the feasibility of replacing the motors. Under the mentorship of Ryan Canfield, senior controls engineer, Kaplan researched and tested the new motor option to determine if it could perform to the same capacity as the old motor. The switch could potentially save thousands of dollars and reduce machinery complexity.

To do this, Kaplan designed a test bed for the new motor. He developed software algorithms for the motor and lithium battery power management, fail-safe mechanisms and a kinematic simulator. The simulations he created approximated loads and estimated torque values that the motor experienced while driving. His research contributed to the company’s efforts to improve efficiency and productivity.

During his internship, Kaplan learned specific skills, such as how to program a structured text language that is the standard for the industry. On the larger scale, he developed his ability to solve problems, a critical skill in engineering.

“This has been an amazing experience and I highly recommend it to everyone. After completing this internship, I realized this is the field that I want to go into,” said Kaplan.

Kaplan returned to Virginia Tech as a sophomore in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. In his spare time he serves as a mentor for his former FIRST Robotics team, and he is involved with Virginia Tech’s Astrobotics team that competes in the NASA Robotic Mining Competition at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

Kaplan dedicated his success and EERE experience to his high school mentor, Wendy Newton. Newton, an IT professional, battled two types of cancer over several years. Kaplan was inspired by her positive attitude and her continued support for his academic success. She continues to mentor him throughout his college years and wrote a recommendation letter for the EERE Program.

“She is the one who taught me that, if you don’t know something, you don’t give up—teach yourself. She taught me perseverance and to keep going no matter what,” said Kaplan.

The EERE Robotics Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) through the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Office’s Advanced Manufacturing Office and administered through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by Oak Ridge Associated Universities.