Union College students create devices to make tedious production tasks easier for local workers

Senior mechanical engineering students at Union College have partnered with local businesses to create devices to make their operations more efficient.

Ron Bucinell, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the college, designed a unique synthesis course that would push students to design tools for ordinary people who needed them.

It’s teamed up with maker Scotia Pine Ridge Industries (PRI) to give this year’s seniors the chance to solve a real challenge for RAD Soap Co. and Vista Lab.

PRI makes a point of working with people from all walks of life and has employed several people with disabilities for companies. Employees work on a variety of production line tasks that involve tedious work. In the past, the partnership with Union College has provided workers with several instruments, such as raised or tilted tables and new machines, which have made the job easier.

“We have a team of employees who are constantly looking to improve and enhance their skills,” said Josh Willenbrink, PRI’s business operations manager. “The class comes to help us by creating physical components and manufacturing tools, which contribute to our efficiency and to leverage our strengths and our energy industry.”

This year, the students were tasked with facilitating the work involved in storing small plastic pipettes for Vista Lab’s medical kits.

When Axton Pulliam, senior mechanical engineer at Union, saw how hard the job was, he and a few others saw it as a challenge they could take on. Physically shaking the pipettes could be painful and lead to carpal tunnel syndrome over time.

Also, checking that the filters were in place could be difficult due to the similar dark colors, he explained.

To address the issues, Pulliam and his team built a tool that at first glance looked like a fun Brookstone toy. There was a board of holes with a comb and a pack of pipettes waiting to be played.

To eliminate the shaking motion required by workers, the students made a device that allowed them to pour the pipettes onto the board and simply brush them into the slots. And to make it easier to check every slit, they’ve built in a light that lets workers see every hole without straining their eyes.

“I hope it will just be less painful for the workers,” Pulliam said, looking thoughtfully at the tool working in front of him.
Across the class, another group of students worked to make sure that the labels could be wrapped better around the bars of soap. According to student Anna Metcalf, soap bars have a ton of “variability” in width and length and are likely to shrink when sitting on a shelf or in a box over time. As a result, a third of the bars must be relabeled when they are sent for shipment.

“We were really focused on creating a device that made sure the soap held firmly every time, regardless of the size or shape of the bar,” she said.

The solution invented by Anna and her classmates includes two square metal brackets connected by springs inside that would allow manufacturers to put the bar inside, separate the springs to size the label, close it tightly and glue it on for a perfect fit.

The team has designed a simple hack that can go a long way for those along the production chain.

“It’s always exciting to have something at our facility that works and helps people improve,” said Willenbrink. “So bringing this stuff to our tables really motivates our staff and brings a lot of good energy as well as a positive increase or production.”

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