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Engineering students devise ideas to help people with disabilities

Engineering students devise ideas to help people with disabilities

Three local college engineering teams have spent the last several months devising ways to help individuals with disabilities be more successful in the workplace. One of those teams last week was rewarded with $10,000 and a second-place honor in the 2019 Cultivating Resources for Employment with Assistive TEchnology Symposium (CREATE).

From left, Catherine Krawiec, Jeff Tyssee, Patrick Finnerty, Hunter Hoffman and Andrew Hayden (RIT)
RIT’s Hilltop Container Intake team, from left, Catherine Krawiec, Jeff Tyssee, Patrick Finnerty, Hunter Hoffman and Andrew Hayden (RIT)

Rochester Institute of Technology’s Hilltop Container Intake team of five engineering students placed second in the statewide competition, which featured 21 inventions from teams at nine colleges.

The team included Catherine Krawiec as lead engineer, Hunter Hoffman as facilitator, Patrick Finnerty as project manager, Jeff Tyssee as communication lead and Andrew Hayden as purchasing coordinator. They worked with individuals from the Arc of Livingston-Wyoming and its vocational services program, Hilltop Industries, on a way to improve its bottle intake program.

New York State Industries for the Disabled Inc., or NYSID, annually pairs college student engineering teams with rehabilitation organizations that employ individuals with disabilities. This year, two teams from Rochester Institute of Technology and one from University of Rochester entered the competition.

“We work with the engineering departments of the schools, and the engineering departments at schools get coupled with one of our nonprofit organizations, and they visit them and see what they’re working on and what their manufacturing line looks like—or where they’re trying to put individuals with disabilities to work—and they come up with solutions for them,” NYSID CEO Maureen O’Brien said.

The competition began in 2012 when NYSID saw that its 135 member agencies could use some assistance in streamlining and improving the technology in their workplaces so that individuals with disabilities could do their jobs better.

“Our member agencies are nonprofits and the bulk of their work is supplying services and creating job opportunities and finding job opportunities for individuals with disabilities,” O’Brian said. “They don’t have either the funding or the time to come up with assisted technology in the workplace. This partnership between New York colleges, both public and private, and the institutions that are our members serves a real purpose for them to come up with ideas that can better help them integrate individuals with disabilities into the workplace.”

Each of the teams’ inventions are judged and first, second and third place winners receive $15,000, $10,000 and $5,000, respectively. Each of the nonprofit agencies who work with the engineering teams will be able to use the invention, regardless of the winners.

This year’s first place winner was a team from SUNY Polytechnic Institute, which developed a yoke remover to repackage cans of beer for NYSID member agency ARC Oneida. Third place was awarded to a team from Cooper Union, which designed a wheelchair attachment to help individuals with cerebral palsy who work at Grab & Go Café at NYSID member agency UCP of NYS deliver food and drinks to customers.

The second place RIT team’s device will help employees at Hilltop Industries sort bottles and cans to be returned to the manufacturer. Employees accept containers from customers, empty them if they are full and sort the containers based on brand. Since some employees have difficulty reading, containers that look similar, such as water bottles, pose the biggest challenge.

When RIT’s team investigated they found that no bar code scanner or assistive electronic device was used in the sorting process. The team put together an automated counting system and optimized the station layout and implemented process step improvements. The counting system enabled the removal of cardboard boxes in favor of a more streamlined and easier setup with free-hanging bags to hold the bottles. Employees drop bottles and cans through a hole into the bag.

“As employees sort, the sensors capture containers falling through the holes and send the signal to a computer chip. The computer then increments a count and sends an updated signal to an LED display that shows the running count,” lead engineer Krawiec said in a video made for the competition. “When the employee is done counting containers, they push the reset button to make the count return to zero.”

The system is projected to improve Hilltop’s annual throughput by nearly 99 percent, team members said.

RIT’s second CREATE team also worked with the Arc of Livingston-Wyoming on a window latch assembly automation and process improvement. The team—Maura Hess-Mahan, Anna Powers, Amalachukwu Anene, Ryan Hare and Carlton Wan—developed a way to help employees assemble 10 window latches at a time, rather than one.

“It is a very fulfilling project because we can actually see what we’re doing will be put to use and will help people,” Wan said. “I think it’s been a very interesting project because we’re working in a sheltered workshop and operators do have disabilities. It’s just nice to see that the work we’re putting in will be useful to Hilltop and the operators and it simplifies the process for them so it makes the work more enjoyable.”

Added Hess-Mahan: “Going into this project, I was excited to get the opportunity to work with operators with disabilities because it was such a great opportunity to be able to create this design that would assist them. Working with CREATE is a good opportunity to show off our design and show how much we’ve accomplished this year.”

Rochester’s third team was from UR. Hannah Goldring, Rebekah Abrams, Olivia Uttamsingh and Taryn Milnes worked with Unistel Industries Co., a CDS Life Transitions company, to adapt its assembly line process to make it more accessible to more of its employees, Goldring explained. The assembly line process makes rubber dust covers for military and first responder radios, which hang from a chassis by cords. The cords are wrapped around rubber caps and crimped into place with metal sleeves, then the ends of the cords are burned off to stem fraying.

The senior biomedical engineering team—dubbed THOR Designs after the first letters of each person’s name—chose to focus on two of the five steps involved: the crimping step and the burning station. The all-female team, the first in the CREATE competition, designed a crimping platform that allows employees to crimp the metal clip without removing the assembly from the base and reducing errors. The team also created a more efficient filtration system during the burning step to avoid hazardous fumes.

Mark Buckley, who served as THOR Designs’ adviser during the process, said the team spent a lot of time with the customer and did a good job honing in on the two steps they thought could use improvement. He said it is likely their project will have a big impact on the employees of Unistel.

“Because this is the biomedical engineering class, we like the idea of letting our students know that not everybody is a young, healthy student, and we like to raise their awareness of the types of people they’ll be working with and for,” said Scott Seldman, who co-teaches a design course at UR. “So CREATE presents lovely opportunities to do that.”

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