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Monday, Sep 01, 2014

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Mechanical engineering students win $20,000 in national assistive design competition


Team EZ Squeeze produced this video about their assistive technology design for the AbilityOne competition. Video by: Team EZ Squeeze


A team of five mechanical engineering students from the Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology at Ohio University won the $20,000 top prize in the online AbilityOne Network Design Challenge for their senior design project, bringing the total national awards in recent years by mechanical engineering teams to almost $70,000.

This is the fourth year out of five that a Russ College team has placed in the online competition focused on assistive design for people with disabilities. This year, Team EZ Squeeze developed a machine for client SW Resources that uses compressed air to force polishing fluid from bulky storage bottles into 1-oz. sample-size bottles. Their goal was to reduce the physical exertion and waste associated with transferring the fluid by hand, allowing more employees with disabilities to complete the task and to do so more efficiently.

"The device is going to provide many more employment opportunities to those with disabilities at SW Resources," said team member Robert Garlock, a 2013 mechanical engineering graduate from Chardon, Ohio. "Seeing the smiles on their faces and hearing them say how much easier it is than the old method was just such a great feeling."

The EZ Squeeze design allows employees to fill the sample bottles five times faster than the previous manual method and reduces waste from six ounces per storage bottle to two ounces. By eliminating the physical component of the manual process and allowing for one-handed operation of the machine, many more employees are able to participate in this job function.

"The difference that your students have made has brought people to tears," said Ben Summers, SW Resources marketing and sales manager. "To work directly with us and to see the impact of these devices when our clients get to use them, to see how proud they are, is life-changing."

The Ability One competition challenges engineering and technology students to develop designs that increase employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. SW Resources is a Parkersburg, W.V.-based non-profit rehabilitation facility that provides employment to individuals with disabilities.

"The Ability One Design Competition is a great example of good things that can happen when the government, universities and non-profit businesses work together with a common purpose," said Department of Mechanical Engineering Chair Greg Kremer, the team's adviser. "The team used their members' combination of creativity, technical skills, communication skills, and manufacturing ability to create a user-friendly solution well matched to the abilities of SW Resources employees."

The Ability One contest, run by the Institute for Economic Empowerment in Alexandria, Va., requires designs to be prototype-stage solutions that advance or enter persons with severe disabilities in the workplace, designed in collaboration with an employee with a disability and that can be used by the end of the current school year.

Russ College mechanical engineering students have accumulated nearly $70,000 in prize winnings from various competitions, including winning or placing at AbilityOne in 2009, 2011 and 2012, as well as a second place JF Lincoln Foundation award in 2011.

"The ME Department's history of success in this national competition is evidence of both the quality of our students and our university's commitment to making a difference in our community," Kremer said.

Half of this year's $20,000 team prize went to the department, and the other half was divided among team members Garlock, Devin DeBoer, Jeremy Ruff, Mitch Harble and Juncheng Yao. In addition, $10,000 in matching funds was granted to SW Resources, which Summers said goes right back into training and programming in job skills, life skills and budget management for their employees.

Garlock, who is now a product development engineer for EGC Enterprises working with flexible graphite applications, took away a valuable experience in collaboration while creating for good.

"Technical skills are a must as an engineer, but communication is just as important," Garlock said. "An engineer's ideas will never become true if he or she cannot effectively communicate them to others."