Robert Rankin

This Pirate aims to design products that
make a difference in the lives of others.

Senior engineering major and inventor Robert Rankin is changing the game.

“I’ve always liked to put things together and mess around with stuff and try to figure things out,” said Rankin. “It’s always been my passion to be an engineer or to make things.”

While working as the equipment manager for the East Carolina University baseball team his sophomore year, Rankin put his tinkering skills into practice by automating a decades-old tradition in baseball – mud rubbing.

Before use, baseballs are scrubbed with a special blend of mud that reduces slip and increases friction, ensuring that pitchers will be able to grip them.

“We were sitting there rubbing baseballs…with Lena Blackburne's baseball rubbing mud,” said Rankin. “I was like, man there’s got to be an automated way to do this (where) you just throw them in there and it does it for you. And my manager, he was like, yeah man, look it up.”

When Rankin didn’t find what he was looking for, he decided to make it himself. Using a five-gallon bucket and supplies from around his house, Rankin built his first prototype. “I put it together and it worked really well,” said Rankin. “You just put the baseballs in there, you turn it on and it spins the baseballs and at that time, you just put mud on the pad. In a minute, they’re done.” 


After receiving positive responses from college baseball teams about his invention, Rankin approached the dean of engineering, Dr. Hayden Griffin, who directed him to the Entrepreneur Initiative. There, he met Marty Hackney. Hackney helped Rankin develop a business plan that could help introduce his invention to the masses.

For over two years, Rankin has also worked closely with Greenville machinist Sean Flanagan. “I paid him to make my machine, and then eventually he realized that I could do some things, specifically electric stuff because I (work in) mechanical engineering.” While Flanagan tackled mechanical tasks such as welding, Rankin began researching electrical engineering.

“I ended up picking some electronics and controllers to put into the machine,” said Rankin. “I got it working right and (Flanagan) saw that I could do that and he had a couple other projects I started working on.”

Rankin continues to hone his invention, recently starting plans to equip it with touch-screen technology.

“Baseball’s about consistency, so in order for a pitcher to be consistent and a batter to be consistent, you’ve got to remove all sources of human error – things that the player can’t control,” said Rankin. “That’s my main point about this machine is that it’ll remove the human error.”

Rankin is in the process of obtaining a provisional patent on his invention. He is set to graduate in May.

Photography by: Cliff Hollis
Written by: Summer Tillman


College: College of Engineering and Technology

Major: Mechanical Engineering

Age: 22

Class: Senior

Hometown: Burgaw, NC

Clubs & Organizations: AIAA, ISPE

Hobbies & Interests: Product development, renewable energy research, working on my ‘85 Fiero, woodworking, trying to play guitar


Place on Campus: Clark-LeClair Stadium

Place to Eat: EC Pho

Class: Thermodynamics, Heat and Mass Transfer, Robotics and Unmanned Systems


Musicians/bands: Alan Jackson, Eric Clapton, Kygo

Movie: The Original Star Wars Trilogy


Most Influential Professor: Dr. John Reis. His enthusiasm toward engineering and willingness to approach problems with an open perspective has truly supported my passion to become an engineer.

You Can't Live Without: Coffee and Oreos

Role Model: Seneca, Elon Musk, Richard Branson

Words to Live By: "Life, if well lived, is long enough" – Seneca

Advice for fellow students: Listen and take in everything you experience. Remember that every person you meet has a viewpoint that is just as strong as your own; they have a reason for it, so be optimistic and figure it out.

Something cool about ECU you wish you knew during your first year: East Carolina has some of the most supportive faculty and staff that I have been around. If you ever have a question, ask a professor. They're here to support you.

Dream job: Working in an environment where I know that I am making a positive difference in the lives of others.

Words of Wisdom

"With a little bit of perseverance, you'll find the perfect balance between enjoying yourself and understanding your responsibilities. As long, boring or uninteresting a class may seem, take in the information that it provides (because) it will be very relevant to your future. Have a proactive mindset, try to relate with what you learn, and have fun."

– Robert Rankin