Sweet Briar Inventors at Work on Third Hand — or Next Best Thing

| March 24, 2009

Mission one at Lynchburg Sheltered Industries is to help disabled or disadvantaged people in the community achieve greater independence and self — esteem through vocational training and jobs. That often means developing assistive technologies or modifying processes to make specific tasks accessible to as many employees as possible.

“We work around people’s disabilities to make them as productive as they can be,” said LSI executive director Cecil Kendrick. “That’s the goal here.”

It turns out that LSI’s purpose is a perfect match for students taking Sweet Briar College’s Technology and Society: A Regional Perspective — Service Learning in the Lynchburg Community. The 200-level engineering course explores the relationship between society and engineering through design projects that solve real problems.

LSI is a light manufacturer whose mainstay product is corrugated cardboard boxes. The non-profit company also periodically takes orders from Flowserve to assemble “contact blocks” that control valve actuators used in industry. The blocks consist of a heavy plastic base plate and a series of spring-loaded switches.

The switches by themselves require surprising dexterity and proper ordering of steps to put together. The final step in the block assembly is especially complicated because it involves fitting several pieces together in particular way that is both confusing and awkward. Only one LSI employee currently does it and that person is not disabled. In all, Kendrick said five of the company’s 89 workers with disabilities work on the Flowserve contract.

So when Sweet Briar Engineering director Hank Yochum and assistant engineering professor Scott Pierce approached him about partnering with the College for its Technology and Society class, Kendrick knew what his answer would be.

“It was pretty immediate,” he said. “We try to get work in here that folks can do. It’s tough for us because a lot of this kind of [hand assembly] labor has been outsourced offshore.”

He asked if the class could design the means to enable more LSI workers — whose disabilities range from mental retardation to sight and hearing impairment — to produce the contact blocks. The issue is creating opportunity more than capacity. Kendrick said LSI has no troubling filling orders, although he noted the company might compete better for contracts if it can increase production.

Pierce and Yochum, who are co-teaching the course, and their 15 students — most, but not all, engineering majors — visited LSI’s plant and saw for themselves how difficult the work is. None of them had the third hand it seems one needs to accomplish the tasks easily, and figuring out that last complicated step was no simple feat either.

Yochum said he and Pierce found the project through NISH, a national non-profit that supports agencies like LSI who provide employment opportunities for the disabled. NISH also encourages development of assistive technologies through its National Scholar Award for Workplace Innovation & Design. The award is open to any undergraduate or graduate college student or team, and Sweet Briar will be submitting its designs for this year’s competition.

The winning person or team and their school each receive $10,000. Just as exciting to Yochum, however, is how well the LSI project fit into the objectives of the Technology and Society course. Even after making the connection through NISH, earlier this year he wasn’t at all sure everything would fall into place.

“I wouldn’t underestimate how hard it was to find all the pieces for a project like this that are authentic,” he said, speaking to the importance of finding a real client with a real problem for whom they can present a real solution.

It’s not so different from the senior capstone project that engineering candidates everywhere must complete to graduate. The difference for Yochum and Pierce is that their class is made up of more sophomores than seniors.

“At a small liberal arts college, you can do these kinds of projects on a manageable scale,” he said.

The class is split into three groups, each working on different problems. Two are addressing different stages of the switch assembly, while the third is working on simplifying the final block assembly.

In some instances, the students’ are designing tools, such as a spring wedge and “fin” crimper that will make holding and manipulating components of the individual switches and the base plate easier. They also may develop processes that use visual aids such as color coding to eliminate the need to memorize procedures.

By mid-semester, the students submitted several of their design drawings for approval to Pierce, who holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering. The tools are being fabricated with help from students at E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg under the direction of shop teacher and machinist Jeff Schleicher. Schleicher also works part time with Sweet Briar students in the engineering lab and in the high school’s metal shop.

On March 26, the three Sweet Briar groups will give 15-minute illustrated presentations on their progress at LSI so Kendrick and some of his employees can review and evaluate the proposed designs. They may also be ready to perform initial tests on some of the tools that have been fabricated.

Sophomore Cassidy Jones, a graduate of Rustburg High School, said for her, taking the course has led to some revelations already. Understanding the difficulty of the LSI workers’ tasks was one. Another was figuring out the purpose of an engineer’s job.

“It is to make life simpler for everyone,” she said.

And while the engineering science major can’t yet say if their ingenuity will open opportunities for LSI’s workers, she seems confident.

“We haven’t gotten to test any of our parts necessarily yet so no thrills so far,” Jones said. “But we are hoping and expecting the turnout to be great and really improve production time.”

Sweet Briar’s engineering curriculum emphasizes experiential learning, design as a fundamental element of engineering, and creating solutions to human problems in a global context. It stresses a multidisciplinary approach with particular emphasis on electrical and mechanical systems.

The program and projects such as the LSI partnership are supported by National Science Foundation grants under its Science Talent Expansion Program. The goal of STEP is to increase representation of minority groups, including women, in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — often referred to as STEM — disciplines.

Visit www.engineering.sbc.edu or contact Yochum at hyochum@sbc.edu or (434) 381-6357 for more information about Sweet Briar Engineering.

Jennifer McManamay

Category: Engineering Science