Product Design

Building a Better Box Cutter (Tech Trends Feature)

1 Jan, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong

Design competition challenges students to help disabled people.


Despite the conspicuous absence of Simon Cowell's blustering criticism, the Javits–Wagner–O'Day/JETS (Junior Engineering Technical Society) NEDC (National Engineering and Design Challenge) is expected to provide young inventors with all the adventure, elation and pageantry of a televised talent show. The contestants—about 1,000 students in grades 9–12—don't have to line up outside a hotel lobby for hours to face a celebrity trio. Nevertheless, like the American Idol hopefuls, they too must survive several rounds of elimination. The judges—who include a former rocket scientist from NASA, a documentary filmmaker with disabilities and a cerebral palsy researcher—are looking for design talents, those kids with solid product ideas to improve quality of life for disabled people. No song and dance here—just show and tell.

In the end, five national finalist teams emerged. They were told, "Congratulations! You're going to Washington, D.C." They were given a chance to refine their prototypes into functional units with commercial potentials. In this "Tech Trends," we meet the team from Gulliver Preparatory School in Miami, Florida, first-place winner in last year's NEDC. Their brainchild is a SEEBO (simple electronic ergonomic box opener).

Meet Team SEEBO

"The makeup of our team was quite broad last year," said Claude Charron, Gulliver's engineering teacher and the team's mentor. "For example, Andy, one of the girls, is an aspiring actress, an amazing presenter. She liked the marketing aspect of the project, but she doesn't want to become an engineer. Then we had some book-smart people, those who were proficient in math and science. Then we had some people who were good at communicating ideas or doing research. They were not [selected] from the top 5% of the class; it's a nice mix of average students, advanced students and top students."

A total of 14 students—3 girls and 11 boys—made up the 2005 Gulliver team, Charron recalled (figure 1). And this year, a girl took the helm as project manager. "We're trying to get more girls involved—if not in the engineering process itself, then in project management," he said. He's particularly proud of the team's diversity, because it reflects the real-world setup, where an engineering project inevitably involves those outside the engineering department.

Figure 1. Gulliver Preparatory School's team took home the first prize in last year's NEDC
Figure 1. Gulliver Preparatory School's team took home the first prize in last year's NEDC

The Scavenger Hunt

In Round I, the contestants go on an Internet scavenger hunt. They follow a series of prompts and questions that lead them to various online resources offering information about various types of disabilities and their associated challenges. One of the clues directs them to an article by Linda McQuistion called "Rehabilitation Technology: Engineering New Careers in Rehabilitation—Careers in Rehabilitation" (American Rehabilitation, Summer 1992).

"Rehabilitation technology," McQuistion wrote, "is the systematic application of scientific and engineering principles to the rehabilitation process for the removal of barriers to employment and independent living. Thus, the end goal of rehabilitation technology is to enhance the employability, education, communication, daily functioning and recreational activities of people with disabilities." McQuistion's examples include aiding a speech-impaired client with a portable computer-powered device that uses synthetic speech to relay messages stored within its memory and increasing a quadriplegic client's indoor comfort with remote-controlled door openers and light switches.

We Choose Arthritis

After research, the Gulliver team picked arthritis as the target disability for their project. "Through research, we found out many people miss work due to carpal tunnel syndrome, which is a form of arthritis," said Charron. "We also looked at the type of jobs that people tend to find in our area [Miami-Dade County, Florida]. One of the things we found out was that, with lots of department stores around here, people were getting jobs opening boxes." Hence, the idea for SEEBO, a box cutter with little or no demand for exertion.

"A conventional box cutter is not for someone with arthritis or with pain in the wrist," said Charron, "so that's how we got the idea. [With SEEBO], you slide your hand into the Velcro [pocket]. It keeps your wrist elevated at a specific angle—between 10° to 15°—because it's been proven to be the angle with the least amount of stress. We also implemented a V-shaped corner so they can open the corners."

For safety measures, SEEBO's blade activates only when it comes in contact with the surface; once the blade disengages from the surface, the blade retracts to minimize accidental injuries.

Two CAD Programs Vying for a Role

At press time, the 2006 contest had moved into Round II, which is the prototype development phase. Because SolidWorks is one of the corporate patrons of JETS, each NEDC participant team had the option to request a complimentary copy of SolidWorks 3D CAD software. The license is a 150-day license, starting from the date of installation. The contest officially began in September 2006 and wraps up five months later in February 2007, so the complimentary license should last long enough. But if a team envisions using the software beyond the February 2007 expiration date for further CAD work, the designers must plan accordingly to have access to the program.

The use of SolidWorks—or any CAD program, for that matter—is not mandatory; however, the advantage of a CAD package, according to Gulliver team's coach Charron, is "when you're ready to produce [the part], you can send the 3D file to a company and have it prototyped [using CNC machining]."

As it happens, Gulliver is also a member of Project Lead the Way, a national program for partnership between schools and private sectors interested in promoting engineering technologies. And an ongoing agreement between Autodesk and Project Lead the Way made the former an exclusive 3D design software supplier for the member school's pre-engineering curricula.

"Half the students who are in our NEDC team had already taken a year of Autodesk Inventor [classes]," said Charron. Relying on familiarity, they chose to forego the free SolidWorks offer and design their box cutter in Inventor instead.

An Idea Materializes

3D CAD, Charron observed, "is a great way to visualize the project. We were able to animate the part in Inventor, so we saw how the blade would operate. We had about five different designs before we even made the prototype [figure 2]. So that enabled us to save time, to understand why this would work and that wouldn't and modify the design easily."

Figure 2. The shape and the design of the SEEBO evolves as the Gulliver team learns more about the needs of an arthritic user and the ideal choice of material. Shown here are four early designs and the working prototype.
Figure 2. The shape and the design of the SEEBO evolves as the Gulliver team learns more about the needs of an arthritic user and the ideal choice of material. Shown here are four early designs and the working prototype.

During the animation process, the Gulliver team discovered that the box cutter was heavier than it should be for its intended use (figure 3). "[The software] can calculate the weight, so we discovered what materials would work, and what wouldn't," explained Charron. "We learned that making it with carbon fiber would be too expensive, because we could tell how much we would need. And it would also be too brittle."

Figure 3. The CAD drawings for the SEEBO and its gearbox.
Figure 3. The CAD drawings for the SEEBO and its gearbox.

If any additional proof was needed about carbon fiber being the wrong choice of material, the accidental puncture that resulted from the prototyping process confirmed it. So the team switched to ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastics and, by using Inventor, calculated the thickness required to hit the target weight.

The Gulliver Project

In February 2007, the national finalists will face off at a red-carpet banquet hosted by NISH, a nonprofit organization that focuses on creating employment opportunities for people with severe disabilities.

The Gulliver team isn't participating in NEDC this year. They continue working with disabled people through the Gulliver Project, inspired by the works of a local organization called the Miami Project, a paralysis cure research center. "We did not enter the [2006–2007] contest because we wanted to work on many different projects," said Charron. "Now we have five ongoing projects. We're helping five individuals with their specific needs—a safety alert system, a retractable canopy for someone [for whom water exposure could be fatal], something that'll prevent a child from falling off a kayak and so on." The box cutter is only the beginning.

In this article
In this article

When asked if the NEDC was created to capitalize on the recent surge of on-air talent competitions, Leann Yoder, executive director of the JETS, quickly pointed out, "We've been doing a program like this for about 25 years now." So if anybody is a copycat, it's American Idol—not the other way around, she jested.

Kenneth Wong is a former editor of Cadence magazine. As a freelance writer, he explores innovative usage of technology and its implications. E-mail him at Kennethwongsf@earthlink.net.


About the Author: Kenneth Wong


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