Rensselaer Alumni Magazine - Fall 2017 - 31
NASA/JPL has partnered with the MDL to mature multiple
"The Design Lab may also investigate a new idea to determine
if it's technically possible," adds project engineer Aren Paster '96.
"Or, we bring a design from the 'back of a napkin' to a fully fleshedout detailed design with blueprints to hand over to a manufacturer."
An entrepreneur and former resident from drought-stricken
California, for example, once asked if it was possible to create a
water-conserving bath toy. Students designed a bubble-shaped
device that circulates water, and built a prototype the sponsor will
now bring to inventor and toy shows, with the hope of licensing it
or finding venture capitalists to manufacture it.
Perhaps most unique, the Design Lab invites engineering
students to glimpse the lives of individuals with disabilities,
which requires students to consider human factors in their
The Northeastern Association of the Blind at Albany
(NABA), which derives a large share of its income by employing
individuals who are blind to produce items for the government,
has relied on the Rensselaer program.
"They've brought us engineering solutions, software solutions,
and workflow solutions," says NABA President Christopher
Burke. "They've increased our ability to employ people who are
blind and increased our bottom line by creating efficiencies."
Students once devised tools that enabled visually impaired
workers to make neck tabs for military uniforms. Last year, they
were asked to help people who are blind sew zippers into highwayworker safety vests. They did it, designing a clip workers use to
guide the zipper to line up under the sewing machine needle.
"The students spend a lot of time here," says Burke. "Part of
what we like about the program is exposing them to people they
might otherwise never have contact with."
Some Design Lab students, like Christina Pacifico '14, pay
it forward. Working with the Center for Disability Services,
her team made an electric toothbrush for individuals who have
difficulty putting things in their mouths. The toothbrush, which
earned a patent, fits like a retainer and vibrates so users can clean
their teeth quickly with little movement. Pacifico, a mechanical
engineering major, had thrived on her hands-on experiences at
Rensselaer, most notably manufacturing a hybrid race car. The
Design Lab added a different dimension.
"It was something the car couldn't give me or my teaching
assistantship couldn't have given me," she says. "It was real-life
action in the real world."
Last year she returned to the Design Lab-as a GE
manufacturing engineer with a problem to solve. She asked
students to improve the process used to remove encapsulation
materials from a cured generator stator bar. To do this, operators
used knives, leading to cuts and extensive clean up. The students
designed a cleaner and safer alternative, a pull tab that peels the
"They came here a few times and became passionate about
the project," says Pacifico, who recently moved on to become an
equipment engineer for Tesla. "And, their presentation blew us
away. I was very proud of RPI."
AFTER THE GRIPPER TEAM HAD COMPLETED ITS
PRESENTATION AND GONE THROUGH RIGOROUS
QUESTIONING FROM THE PROJECT AND CHIEF
ENGINEERS, DAVID WHALEN WEIGHED IN.
"I just want to say thank you. The amount of work you did was
absolutely tremendous," said Whalen, who joked that he feared
he'd eat too much ice cream once he is able to serve himself. "It
will be so great to grab something out of a cabinet, get something
to drink, or use the microwave myself for the first time in more
than 30 years."
A lawyer with New York's court system, Whalen became
paralyzed from the waist down in the skiing accident that also
robbed him of most of the use of his arms and hands. He has
devoted himself to allowing others to study his physical limitations
in hopes of developing technical solutions for himself and others.
This was the fifth Design Lab team to work with him. Previous
groups had devised a docking station the gripper locks into as the
battery charges. They replaced a tube Whalen could breathe into
to open the gripper arms with a voice-activated control.
Now, students had made the docking station pivot and
replaced the arm braces Whalen has used for 37 years with 3-D
printed, skin-toned braces custom-matched to his arms. They built
in slots he could use to hold a spoon for the ice cream he could
Whalen expected to try out the system over the summer.
A new team of students will resume work in the fall.
Looking on was Daniel Avery Nisbet '17, a biomedical
engineering student who had worked on the project in the fall
2016 semester to improve the design.
"It's great to see three months later how they took what we
did and saw things we never thought of and made improvements,"
"And," adds Connolly, from the spring semester team,
"someone will come along next semester and think of something
we didn't think of and make it so much better."
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION ON THE DESIGN LAB,
CONTACT KATHRYN DANNEMANN AT: DANNEK2@RPI.EDU
OR (518) 276-8293
RensselaeR/ Fall 2017 31