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Engineering students reinvent the wheelchair

An engineering professor and his students have solved some of the problems wheelchair users face, like moving side-to-side or traveling on a beach.

As part of a mechanical engineering class called Capstone Design, professor Stephen Sundarrao’s students have designed and patented devices to address the needs of wheelchair users.

The devices range in size from a folding tray kit that attaches to the arm of a wheelchair to a larger device that attaches to the bottom of the chair to allow for travel across different terrains, such as from a sidewalk to a shoreline.

“The key is really to allow or maximize independence,” Sundarrao said. “When you look at people going to certain environments like a beach or a state park, although there are trails that are available it confines the person to stay in their wheelchair and in a confined path.

“So with some of the products, such as the off-road wheelchair, they can stay in their wheelchair and then access the beach and pretty much go wherever they feel like and be very independent.”

The ideas behind the devices are often driven by Sundarrao’s work as associate director for the University’s Rehabilitation Engineering and Technology Program, which works to modify cars and other appliances for the disabled. In the program he hears about the issues wheelchair users face.

In his class, students are asked to design a device, have it manufactured, write a report and present it to the community – all within 12 to 15 weeks.

“The purpose of the class is that they have to … come up with a solution for something that would take all the skills and training that they’ve had over the years and apply it toward the real world problem,” Sundarrao said.

Every fall and spring semester, Sundarrao said, around 10 devices are designed and about half of those are patented.

Rehab Ideas, a USF-based company started by Sundarrao, has already patented five devices and is looking to begin production and start taking orders in August. The patented devices are manufactured by the Tampa Brass & Aluminum Corp. Customers can buy them through dealers that offer Rehab’s devices.

Sundarrao said he hopes the devices will help create a new culture surrounding wheelchairs.

“A lot of people with disabilities and even the average person look at wheelchairs with a very negative stigma, and the emotion that’s created out of that is very sad,” Sundarrao said. “What we want to say is that people in wheelchairs actually do a lot of fun things.”

Sundarrao said his Capstone Design class was rewarding not only for the community but also for the students involved.

“Students who come out of this course really feel like they’ve got a real-world training exercise … They are able to go out and practice engineering having this experience behind them, because they have to go through the full process of actually building a product, writing a report and doing a presentation in the community,” he said.

Sundarrao said some of his former students have been hired to work with the Rehabilitation Engineering and Technology Program. Joshua Lujan, who graduated in August 2006, is one of those.

Lujan said wheelchairs are confined to moving forward or backward, much like a car, but that his No Limitations Sideways Wheelchair Kit will help users move sideways with ease.

“It was really a ‘eureka’ moment when we came up with that idea and we knew it was going to work,” he said.

At the end of the course, Lujan’s work paid off in the form of a patent.

“It’s a great honor because not only did you work on this project in 15 weeks and put your heart and soul into it with three of your fellow classmates, but then (you can) say to the world that, ‘Here is a product that I’ve made, that I have the rights to, that has value and is adding to the body of work for humanity,'” he said.

Lujan said the Capstone Design class was helpful because it allowed him to do hands-on work and gain experience.

“I loved the class. It was such a great learning experience because you get the real-world learning experience in product design,” Lujan said. “The students are encouraged to get into the machine shop and see how the professional machinists machine your product and also use some of the tools to put the project together. It was really an incalculable learning experience.”