Design, Build, Test in Aquaponics

As the leader of the technology group within Michigan Aquaponics, it is my duty to make sure that our group is continuously developing and iterating upon designs we are creating or have created. The process behind building an aquaponics system is no different from designing any other sequence-based system. A real-life example Michigan Aquaponics has applied this is within creating our Beta Prototype, a 500-gallon aquaponics system that currently operates at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Before even obtaining materials, the first step was conceptualization. The technology group first conducted research into the distinct types of systems by examining systems built by other aquaponics groups, and then formulated their research into a pro/con list to determine which type to ultimately design. The design process began with initial hand-drawn schematics, ones that were created purely out of creativity but based within the boundaries of the allotted design space. Next, the group began critiquing and discussing the diverse designs that were submitted. Thought many of the designs were immensely creative, the overall efficiency of bringing many of the designs to fruition wasn’t plausible. Through hours of discussion, debate, and critique, the group developed a list of requirements and suggestions that they formulated from their individual designs that they knew to include in the final design. For the next, the members designed the final design iteration of the soon-to-be Beta Prototype. With the hand-drawn design, the group began translating their design into SolidWorks, a 3-D CAD modeling software. The importance of this step was highly emphasized since the dimensions and eventual physical renditions of the design would be completely based off what was created within the CAD model.

With the CAD model created, several members began building the initial budget and purchase list to begin the construction of the components within the Beta Prototype. The next step was construction, which consisted of creating four distinct sub-components: Fish Tank, Biofilter, Mechanical Filter, and Plant Bed. The technology team separated into four teams which each one in charge of creating a sub-component of the system. Construction lasted for about six months, due to encountering a myriad of snafus along the way which included, but not limited to: Having tools break and waiting for replacements, realizing that a store-bought piece was faulty and requiring for a new one to be ordered, realizing that connections between sub-components were leaking, and the most common error, creating a piece not within tolerance and thus having to re-do the entire piece. As time went on, the group began learning from its mistakes and the Beta Prototype was finally mechanically finished and primed for validations testing in February 2017.

The entire process of validations testing consisted of running the aquaponics system by cycling water and determining whether each of the sub-components performed well individually and together as a complete process. Again, the group faced a plethora of problems during this phase and needed much extra time than the allotted three weeks to truly establish an OK for validations testing. The biggest and most pressing problem that was faced was needing to have the system attain equilibrium water-level. Since this system is meant to be ran unattended 20 hours out of the day, the system must be running within a stable manner or the flora and fauna cultivated in the system would be negatively affected. This equilibrium problem required the technology group to prolong the validations testing three weeks beyond the original deadline, but ultimately, the problem was successfully solved and the system is officially rated to be mechanically sound and validated for unattended use.

As stated in the title, building aquaponics isn’t just above creating a glorified fish tank with a plant bed. It is about bringing an idea to life through a logical progression of events: design, build, and test. What the members learned through this experience has been invaluable, and Michigan Aquaponics hopes to continue cultivating this engineering creativity and rigor for generations of fish-loving students to come.

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