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Engineering students design manufacturing aid for workers with disabilities

March 06, 2017
YCP engineering photo news

As Neil Helsel finishes his senior year at York College of Pennsylvania, there’s one assignment he’s working on that means more to him than the grade.

“It’s to improve our community,” he said. “I’m more concerned about making this work than getting an ‘A’ in the class.”

Neil’s a Mechanical Engineering major. He’s part of a group of engineering students who are designing manufacturing aids to improve the present production model for workers at a local nonprofit that employs individuals who have disabilities.

A unique task

One of the jobs at the nonprofit, The Shadowfax Corporation, is to pack Safe Paw Ice Melt, an ice and snow melter. The current system had workers scoop the product into containers, cap it by hand and put it on a pallet, Neil said. However, the product’s weight was not consistent.  It was usually over the required weight. The customer requires the weights to be accurate and within a certain weight range.

The students faced a unique task that required them to think outside of the box when redesigning the system: Shadowfax pays its employees by the number of products they produce, so the solution couldn’t be an assembly line or anything automated, Neil said.

Tina Vasquez, Shadowfax’s Associate Director of Production, said between 45 to 60 individuals regularly work on the ice melt product and would benefit from an improved production model.

“The students that came to Shadowfax were very knowledgeable and friendly. They asked questions from our staff about everyone’s abilities and what would help,” Vasquez said. “We were very impressed with them.”

Positive steps

Students began the project in May of 2016 with design work and are currently in the manufacturing and troubleshooting aspects of the project.

“We had to develop this unique system of individual weigh stations where the employee will come up and push a button. The correct amount of material will come out and automatically shut off. Then, the employee just needs to cap it,” Neil said. “It will improve their speed and reliability in their product.”

As the project nears completion, there have already been positive steps made.

“The students designed a tool to press a poly washer onto a screw,” Vasquez said. “This has helped a few of our employees that were having trouble with this process. Those employees have almost doubled the amount of work they used to do.”

Affecting lives

Brianna Still, a senior Electrical Engineering major and Mathematics minor, serves as the electrical lead on the project.

“I believe we were only there one or two days when the individuals were still at work, and it was a pleasure to be able to interact with them about the work they do and how much they enjoy it,” she said.

It’s opportunities like these, where the students get to partner with the community that drew Neil to York College.

“This is one of a few schools where the Engineering program requires three internships, and internships are really where you get to learn what happens in the industry," Neil says.

While this particular project and class doesn’t count as an internship, he still finds it rewarding.

“If this project goes right,” he says, “we are going to affect these people’s lives.” 

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