May 20, 2010

Engineering students win national design contest

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill -- A team of engineering students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale has won a national design contest that helps people with disabilities gain access to jobs or advance at their place of employment.

The team members, who entered the competition as part of their work in a senior-level engineering design class, won the top prize at the 2009-2010 AbilityOne Network Design Challenge. The prize carries a $10,000 cash award for team members and a $10,000 cash award for the University.

The organization also will recognize the top three winning teams during a conference June 9 in Washington, D.C.

The team worked with an organization called START in Murphysboro to design an improved stapling mechanism that its clients could use in their job of stapling calendars to screen-printed vinyl backs. START stands for “Specialized Training for Adult Rehabilitation.”

The team’s task included making its mechanism low-cost and low-maintenance while working in collaboration with START clients. The students delivered a working prototype, completed a design report and made a final report and oral presentation to win the contest.

Previously, START clients used a basic hand stapler to do the work, team members said. The improved “calendar production device” created by the students used jigs, improved ergonomics and a large handle to help clients with mental disabilities and decreased physical dexterity perform the task.

The mechanism, which cost about $250 to produce, increased productivity by 300 percent and essentially paid for itself in one day, said Eric Hoffmann, a senior in mechanical engineering from Elk Grove Village and the team’s student leader. He said team members were proud of the accomplishment.

“When I looked at the list of winners, it was stunning when I saw the runners-up and who we beat,” Hoffmann said. “I knew we had done a good job on it, but I never thought we would win it all.”

Working on the project was rewarding for other reasons, too, he said.

“We all have to try to make a difference, too, and this was about improving these people’s lives,” he said.

Along with Hoffmann, student team members included:

• Lisa Furby, a senior in mechanical engineering from Carbondale

• Ronnie Mays Jr., a senior in mechanical engineering from Anna

•Samir Shah, a senior in mechanical engineering from Libertyville

• Bryan Whitney Belt, a senior in automotive technology from Mount Carmel

James Mathias, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Energy Processes, acted as a faculty adviser for the team.

John W. Nicklow, associate dean and professor in the College of Engineering at SIUC, said the college is extremely proud of the students.

“They competed against other top programs in the country and not only won, but they won with style and grace,” Nicklow said. “The future is bright for this group! It also speaks to the time and effort devoted by the team's faculty advisers.”

The SIUC team bested teams from some 40 other universities and colleges, including Duke University, the University of North Carolina Charlotte and Chapel Hill campuses, California Polytechnic State University, John Brown University and others.

Started by NISH, a national nonprofit agency that creates employment opportunities for people with severe disabilities, the contest encourages creative technological solutions to employment barriers. NISH uses the AbilityOne Program to network with local, community-based organizations and nonprofit agencies.

The contest is open to any college student or team of students at the graduate or undergraduate level. It provides a unique design challenge for engineering, computer science, industrial design, physical therapy and occupational therapy students.