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The SourceAmerica Design Challenge team from Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan couldn’t anticipate the positive impact of their engineering efforts on people with disabilities when they began their project. Nonetheless, the group of mechanical engineering students will be traveling to Washington, D.C. on April 7 to compete as finalists in the event hosted by SourceAmerica, a national nonprofit organization that creates job opportunities for people with disabilities.

The LTU team’s challenge was to assess and improve the work experience for employees with disabilities who assemble automotive parts for General Motors and spray bottles for Sprayco at the STEP Northwest Resource Center in Livonia, Michigan, a SourceAmerica nonprofit member agency.

Dr. Cristi Bell-Huff leads the Entrepreneurial Engineering Design Studio class that gives students the opportunity to identify a problem and design a solution.

“Without a real customer, an engineering solution is meaningless,” she said. “We were looking for customers the students could interact with and STEP was looking to partner with a school for Design Challenge.”

The SourceAmerica Design Challenge is an annual competition that draws entries from more than 120 high schools and colleges across the country. Teams of students pair up with an employer of people with disabilities to solve a workplace challenge. Students work closely with both employees and management to identify the issue and develop prototypes of technology to improve the work experience for employees with disabilities.

The team visited the STEP Northwest Resource Center and its director, Steve Slayton, to observe operations, which include the assembly of household and automotive components.

“The way the students were able to figure out themselves what some of the barriers were was incredibly impressive. We didn’t have to steer them to a solution,” Slayton said. “They talked to clients and identified the problem completely on their own.”

After what Bell-Huff calls a “pain-storming” session, the process of identifying potential sources of employee discomfort in work activities, the team found that the assembly of spray bottles presented some ergonomic challenges.

“We realized that they had to turn away people from doing this job because they didn’t have the dexterity,” team member Steve Graczyk said. “Our focus was about making an inclusive design so that employees could participate in the job no matter what their skill level might be.”

Additionally, employees found the repetitive nature of reaching down to the floor to pick up a bottle and the action of screwing the spray nozzle to the bottle resulted in wrist and back pain over time.

The team’s solution is comprised of two components: the “initial parts box,” designed to reduce the reach for supplies, and a sprayer assembler that rotates the sprayer bottle to connect and tighten the nozzle attachment.

For workers with reduced dexterity or mobility, the solution reduced the time to assemble a bottle from 18.2 seconds to 11 seconds. The sprayer assembler can be used with only one hand, expanding the pool of potential operators. Workers of all abilities agreed unanimously that the two-part solution reduced back and wrist pain.

While the team was ready with their calculated approach to solve a workplace issue with engineering, they weren’t prepared for the completed device being stolen, along with the car where a team member was storing it.

“It was just awful,” Bell-Huff said. “They actually had to rebuild their device. They didn’t change the design, but it gave them the opportunity to do it better since they knew what to anticipate.”

Slayton said the theft was a bit of a snag, but employees are glad the second iteration is up and running.

“Now that we have it back, they’re having more fun doing their job and feel better about themselves,” he said. “You can tell that some of those who are working with the machine for the first time are getting a lot out of it.”

Graczyk said it wasn’t just the employees of STEP who benefitted from the project, however.

“When we went into STEP, it opened our eyes that they have a larger impact on the market than we previously thought,” he said. “We looked at workforce barrier and realized what we take for granted every day. I feel like I’m participating in this challenge on the community level.”