Mary Helen Montgomery
When Chantz Yanagida, 21, got a call from a former teacher at Hixson High School last summer asking him to take a look at their eLab, he had no idea it would send him on a year-long quest to solve a problem and ultimately lead to him starting his own business.
Hamilton County Schools offer 16 Volkswagen eLabs where students can design, prototype and test products, using tools like 3D printers, laser cutters, robotics and more. Volkswagen Chattanooga and the State of Tennessee started the eLab program in 2017 for middle and high school students.
Yanagida’s high school teacher called him because Hixson High School’s eLab equipment would sometimes break from heavy use. Some may see that as inevitable — that a bunch of teenagers using machines will break them — but not Yanagida, who recently graduated from UTC with a degree in mechanical engineering.
“I started last July, and donated several hundred hours of service,” says Yanagida, who did an analysis of all 16 Hamilton County Schools eLabs. “I was trying to figure out which equipment was most prone to break, and I collected six months' worth of data.”
He discovered the most frequent problem across eLabs — 3D printers, which can take hours to print, often jam up after hours of use.
When Yanagida began his research, he was beginning his senior year in UTC’s engineering program, which would require him to complete a thesis that involved making a “mechanical improvement” to something. He decided to solve the problem of the 3D printers’ breakdown.
“I came to the conclusion that it was a heat issue, so I built a solution that a sixth-grader could use,” Yanagida says.
He created a device that could read the internal temperature of a 3D printer, and he wrote special software that would pause the print if the temperature got too high, and restart it once the temperature cooled down.
“It’s a dollar solution for an issue that’s been present with these 3D printers all along.”
Yanagida presented his work at the recent UTC Technology Symposium at the Chattanooga Public Library, alongside 120 other student engineering and computer science projects. Many of the other projects presented at the symposium also offered solutions to local and universal problems. For instance, Children's Hospital at Erlanger asked students to come up with ideas to help reduce hospital wait times. Another team of students prototyped a smart house that let users control all the lights and electronics inside.
Yanagida helped organize the symposium because he’s passionate about connecting students with Chattanooga’s startup scene. The event, which was held off-campus for the first time, was intentionally organized in the the city’s Innovation District. Yanagida and some of his classmates were part of a Co.Starters class last summer at Co.Lab specially designed to help engineering students monetize their ideas.
“I would love to see engineers take more of the entrepreneurship classes at UTC,” Yanagida says.
He’s already taken those lessons in entrepreneurship to heart — he now runs eLab Repairs, which specializes in installing and repairing equipment at eLabs in Hamilton County. Yanagida describes his business as a passion project, since he strongly believes that eLabs will continue to be an important part of STEAM education in the future. Though he’s worked locally so far, he hopes to expand the business to the Nashville area soon.