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MSU engineering seniors help nonprofit clinch wheelchair design

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At the Design Fair at MSU on Dec. 5, engineering senior Kevin Kruse demonstrates the wheelchair system his capstone team designed for local nonprofit ROC Wheels. PHOTO BY ADRIAN SANCHEZ-GONZALEZ

By Marshall Swearingen MSU NEWS SERVICE

BOZEMAN – When ROC Wheels had a new design idea for the wheelchairs it distributes to people around the world, the local nonprofit turned to who had helped in the past: engineering students at Montana State University.

Having already developed a couple models of rugged, affordable wheelchairs and delivered them to about 10,000 people in 30 countries—primarily children with cerebral palsy and similar mobility restrictions—ROC Wheels wanted to make a new, self-activated wheelchair that would empower the user to stretch and easily change positions.

That was the challenge the nonprofit gave to four MSU seniors last spring as they embarked on the yearlong “capstone” course that tests the teamwork and technical skills of all MSU engineering majors. The team’s project would build upon parts of the wheelchair designed and constructed by another MSU capstone team the previous year. Capstone projects are sponsored by private companies and organizations as well as MSU faculty, federal labs and others.

“It’s inspiring for us to challenge the students, and the results have helped us progress much faster than we would otherwise,” said ROC Wheels co-founder Wayne Hanson on Dec. 5, when MSU engineers showed off their capstone creations at the biannual Design Fair on campus. “This group was able to solve a problem we didn’t expect them to, which was really exciting.”

For the engineers, the knowledge that their efforts could one day make a difference in someone’s life helped propel them across the semester’s finish line, even as the work pushed them out of their comfort zones.

“A lot of this stuff we don’t learn in class,” said Renan Baldi, a mechanical engineering major from Brazil. The team had to navigate international wheelchair regulations, make decisions about fabrication methods and stay within a budget of $1,000.

“It put us in more of a manufacturing environment than we’re used to,” said mechanical engineering major Trey Ackerly of Denver.

That’s what the capstone projects are all about, said team adviser Loribeth Evertz, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering.

“They go through the whole design and manufacturing cycle,” Evertz said. “It’s fun to be able to work locally with a sponsor like this. Not only does the sponsor get to see what our students can do but the students get so see opportunities for how they could use their degree out in the world.”

According to mechanical engineering technology major Tanner Sachse, ROC Wheels was “extremely supportive,” even if the dance between the two-semester class and private industry offered unique challenges. As the team went through multiple design iterations for their tilt mechanism, ROC Wheels was working on other parts of the new prototype, so the MSU team had to adapt.

“Bringing it all together was a challenge,” said Kevin Kruse, a mechanical engineering technology major from Denver. “But we’re pretty happy with how it came out.”

At the Design Fair the wheelchair was in action, tilting backward up to 45 degrees and locking into position with a deceivingly complex system of pins and springs packaged in the wheelchair’s armrests. Tilting the armrests forward unlocked the chair’s back and allowed the backrest to recline and then automatically lock in multiple positions.

“It’s so simple to use, the person can change position and move all by themselves,” Hanson of ROC Wheels said. “In a traditional wheelchair, a caregiver has to do that for you.” Moreover, the system is entirely mechanical, making it cheaper than an electric wheelchair and more adaptable to low-resource areas. “There’s nothing else like it,” he said.

Hanson said ROC Wheels plans to refine the design and then hopefully license it for initial production and distribution in the U.S., which would generate funding for the organization as well as pave the way for taking the new wheelchair overseas.

“The kids did a great job,” said Hanson, noting that this is the third time ROC Wheels has sponsored an MSU engineering capstone project. “We’d like to continue to work with these MSU students on an annual basis.”

According to Robb Larson, associate professor of mechanical engineering, there is always a need for new capstone sponsors, and anyone interested in sponsoring a project can contact him.

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