The race is on: Rowan U engineering creation can solve Rubik's Cube in mere seconds


The Rowan University College of Engineering’s Rubik’s Cube is quite a little performer.

 Watch video of Rowan's Rubik's Cube in action.

The Rowan University College of Engineering’s Rubik’s Cube is quite a little performer.

Untouched by man, the iconic 80s toy twists, swirls and — once it propels its six sides of various colors into place — enjoys a little victory dance.

Truth be told, the Rubik’s Cube is not so much the star of the show as is the device that puts it through its paces, a creation of students in an engineering clinic that can spin the three-dimensional puzzle into completion with as few as 17 turns in 15 seconds.

Its name isn’t catchy — right now it’s simply called the Rubik’s Cube-Solving Robot. But the attitude of the device — which looks like a futuristic arm one might find on a spaceship — is something else altogether.

The heart of the Rubik’s Cube-Solving Robot is a Siemens’ programmable logic controller (PLC), a piece of equipment used in industry for such tasks as automating assembly lines.  The creators of the robot — Zachary Grady, 22, a senior electrical and computer engineering (ECE) major from Audubon, and Joe Ridgeway, 21, a senior ECE major from Norwalk, Conn. — programmed the PLC to turn all sides of the Rubik’s Cube in a pattern.

“Every possible solution is a set of one of 18 moves,” explained Ridgeway. According to Grady, those 18 moves are 90-, 180- or 270-degree turns of each of the six sides of the toy.

The students picked a project in class that required them to demonstrate the PLC’s capabilities. “We came up with a few, and this was the one we really liked,” Grady said.

“We thought we had to do something with robotics because of what the PLC is capable of,” Ridgeway added.

Ridgeway, who is a Rubik’s Cube prodigy of sorts — he can consistently solve the puzzle in about 45 seconds by hand and has had one in his room since freshman year — was confident his background could help with the task. “We knew the device was capable of doing these movements,” he said.

Working under ECE technician and advisor Philip Mease and professor Dr. Shreekanth Mandayam, Grady and Ridgeway programmed the device so that every move equates to a number, developing a software program that converts signals into movements that solve the puzzle. When the laptop connected to the device indicates which number to use, the PLC reads it and makes the move, a rather attention-getting turn that sounds like a large staple gun hard at work. To date, the team has programmed the Rubik’s Cube-Solving Robot to solve two possible combinations of color patterns.

Their creation works around a single corner of the Rubik’s Cube, on which the toy balances. Their device can rotate one or two layers of colors at a time. Grady and Ridgeway made all components of the robot themselves, fabricating all of the solid pieces, programming the software and more.

“We made this from scratch,” noted Grady. “We spent a couple of days building the (support structure) alone. This allowed us to really pick up a large amount of the mechanical aspect of engineering.”

The Rubik’s Cube-Solving Robot is captivating, no doubt. But it’s also the reflection of the kind of education students from freshman year on get in Rowan’s College of Engineering, which emphasizes interdisciplinary teams and a hands-on, minds-on education.

“This project enabled our students to understand the design and operation of PLCs, which are the building blocks of industrial automation, in a fun and competitive learning environment. We are grateful to Siemens for donating cutting-edge equipment which will form an integral part of our junior-level Systems & Controls class,” Mandayam said.

Added Mease, who earned his B.S. in ECE from Rowan in 2005 and currently is enrolled in the M.S. in Engineering (specialization in electrical engineering) program, “Zach and Joe have spent endless hours designing, building and testing a device that would break the world record for a machine cube solver.  I am very proud of their efforts and hard work.  Even after their clinic semester has ended, they still continue to work on the machine, making it even faster.  I feel this level of dedication stems from having projects that are exciting for students to work on.”

“Compared to what my friends in other colleges are doing, this is really unique,” said Grady. “They don’t get hands-on opportunities. We get a hands-on experience that really helps us solidify our knowledge.”

And a chance to dance with Rubik as well.



NOTE: To see the Rubik’s Cube in action, go to: