High Schoolers Help the Handicapped

A group of creative high school students put their engineering skills to work to design and build an automated assembly and packaging system, helping a workshop for disabled people become more self-sufficient.

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It's amazing to see what high school kids can do when given time, resources and a little strategic instruction. Copley High School in Copley, Ohio, is a general education school with about 1,135 students across grades 9-12. The school has no particular specialization, which makes the accomplishments of our engineering team all the more noteworthy.

Students participating in our engineering program worked together to build an assembly and packaging system to help people with disabilities become more productive in the workforce. The student-designed system will be used to assemble and package more than 1 million parts each year.

Weaver ProPak in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, is a contract manufacturer, and a nonprofit organization. They are part of the AbilityOne program, offering work opportunities for people with disabilities. AbilityOne is the largest source of employment for people with significant disabilities in the U.S.

More than 550 nonprofit organizations nationwide employ these individuals and provide quality products and services at competitive market prices. Like any other manufacturing business, Weaver has to keep up with customer demand, and it needed to improve efficiencies associated with the assembly and packaging of a nozzle kit. Instead of working with a specialized packaging machine builder, Weaver found a cost-effective solution by working with us.

Our students worked hard to design, engineer and build the integrated nozzle assembly machine and a packaging station for Weaver’s customer, Fomo Products, which makes foam insulation and sealant materials and application equipment. AutomationDirect, an online superstore of industrial controls and components, provided most of the required automation equipment.

AutomationDirect has worked on a number of SourceAmerica projects and helped establish our critical contact with the program. The project was a success, and our team finished fourth nationally out of 360 teams competing in the SourceAmerica Design Challenge, a national engineering competition to design workplace technology for people with disabilities.

In the beginning

The students on the Copley engineering team set out to compete in the SourceAmerica Design Challenge to help people with disabilities. SourceAmerica assigned us to work with Weaver, allowing our students to provide critical assistance to help their workers, while at the same time learning engineering principles.

Having this very practical and fulfilling benefit made the project all the more engaging for our students, knowing they would be helping disabled workers in the AbilityOne program. The system we built helps the nonprofit keep costs low, enabling it to keep its work force gainfully employed. This project was the second system our team built for Weaver, providing an excellent opportunity to expand on what we had learned during the first project.

Beyond designing and building the system, there were additional parts to the project. We needed to provide in-depth information for the judges, including the project background, the development process and expected benefits. As part of the supporting documentation, we produced a video explaining what we had accomplished, and also wrote a 10-page paper delving into project specifics.

Project challenges

Unfortunately, funding for developmental disabilities workshops in the area is dwindling and many are closing. For Weaver to stay in business, it has to generate more income, which means it faces the same pressures as any manufacturer—increasing output and efficiency. The goal for our system is to help Weaver increase production and lower costs, while freeing up workers to take on new contracts and tasks.

During our first project with Weaver, our Copley engineering team began by reviewing Weaver’s existing nozzle production line and found the problem immediately: The whole process was being done by hand. Workers used a manual arbor press to seat the mixer insert in each nozzle one at a time, carried boxes of parts to each station and packaged all items by hand. The nozzle assembly process took at least 15 seconds per part, which was too slow to maintain production goals. Attempts to increase production were hampered because only the most skilled workers could perform the assembly process. The challenge was clear: The assembly line would have to be automated so any workers at the nonprofit—no matter the nature of their disability—could assemble and package products.

Design, engineer and build

The Copley High School Engineering Team’s first Fomo nozzle production and packaging system was designed for a single specific nozzle model. It included a complete solution to assemble and transport nozzle assemblies automatically, and then package them in kits with gel packets and instructions. Once our first system was built and installed, Weaver realized a significant production increase over its existing manual operation.

The second system we were assigned was designed to accommodate a new Fomo nozzle the company had scheduled for rollout in December 2015. However, because of low production demand, Fomo pulled the contract.

Ultimately, this setback proved to be a benefit because it created an unexpected opportunity. We shifted gears and redesigned the new system with changeable tooling and programming to handle every nozzle in Fomo’s catalog. This new system replaced the one we built last year as our first project for Weaver, adding increased versatility and faster production with a smaller footprint.

Though the new system was based loosely on the earlier model, it was built from the ground up. Our students designed, fabricated and tested all its parts. They specified all the electronics and wrote the ladder logic for the programmable logic controller (PLC). AutomationDirect guided their efforts and helped answer many questions.

The new design enables any worker at Weaver to operate the system, including individuals with only one hand, or who have counting or memory disabilities. The design also helps ensure final product accuracy with all parts in correct quantities in every package.

The nozzle assembly machine requires two operators to run at full production rate—one on each side. It assembles nozzles using a pneumatic press, and then automatically unloads the parts using ejectors to drop them from the press fixtures into a bin or onto a conveyor, in each case for transport to the packaging station.

A single worker at the packaging station inspects the assembled nozzles and counts them into groups of 25, using a counting board to assist if necessary. Each group is packaged with three petroleum jelly packets and one instruction manual. The whole packaging operation takes 48 seconds. The packaging station includes a manual bag pickup, an automatic label dispenser, an automatic bag opener using an air blast, a counting board to verify quantity, and an automatic foot-operated bag sealer. The assembly machine and the packaging station can be used together or separately to suit production needs.

The Fomo nozzle production and packaging system changed a completely manual process to a semi-automatic lean design. Automating nozzle assembly reduced the cycle time to 6 seconds per part compared with 15 seconds for the manual operation. The manual system required at least six workers, but the automated system needs a crew of only three. Production increased with fewer people, allowing Weaver to take on more work from other customers and make their nonprofit operation more self-sustaining.

Automation system details

Most of the parts for the assembly station came from AutomationDirect, including pneumatic devices such as cylinders, filters, regulators, gauges, valves, solenoids, flow controls and fittings. AutomationDirect also supplied many of the electrical components such as a CLICK PLC, power supply, pushbuttons, selector switches and indicator lights. It was a big help to be able to purchase most of the pneumatic and control system hardware from this single source.

The manual arbor press was replaced by an AutomationDirect NITRA 1.5-inch bore, 7-inch stroke pneumatic air cylinder, and pneumatic finished part ejector with a NITRA 1.5-inch bore, 3-inch stroke cylinder.

The operator loads the nozzle and mixer parts into a fixture and triggers the operation by pressing two buttons. The buttons must be pressed and held while the pneumatic press closes, seating the mixer insert in the nozzle. One of the safety buttons can be bypassed with a key-operated selector switch by an authorized supervisor, so an individual with only one hand can operate the machine if required.

The main controller for the system is an AutomationDirect CLICK PLC, mounted within a small control panel. This unit has eight discrete inputs and six discrete outputs onboard, and an additional eight-point output module was added. All discrete inputs and outputs operate at 24 VDC.

The students used AutomationDirect’s CLICK PLC programming software to write the automatic sequence for the assembly machine, and our students were able to implement its simple instruction set with few issues. Fortunately, 30 days of free online training was included, and when that failed, AutomationDirect’s technical support got us pointed in the right direction at no extra charge.

Gratifying results

The initial installation and startup went well. With the assembly machine on wheels, the students just rolled it onto the production floor, plugged it into the 120 VAC power, and connected it to the compressed air supply. It worked perfectly from the start and has continued to do so. At last check, Weaver Industries has used it to assemble and package more than 1 million nozzles.

The Fomo nozzle production and packaging system can be operated by all the workers at the facility regardless of their disability. The design and ergonomic operation of the system ensures all employees can either assemble or package the products.

The second-generation system performs above and beyond the requirements of our partner, allowing Weaver to increase production. Overall, running at more than twice the speed and using half the workers with much less required rework, the system increased productivity by 500 percent over the manual approach. The packaging system runs more smoothly with fewer errors as well, ensuring lower costs overall.

For our students, it was a great learning experience. They loved the design process, and also building, integrating and testing the system. Wiring, plumbing and writing the code for the machine were valuable skills learned to prepare them for a future in manufacturing.

There are many robotic programs and competitions, but SourceAmerica stresses the practicality of building machines to solve real-world applications, and helping people with disabilities is very rewarding. As Copley High School students Aaron Hesketh and Deniz Tektas noted in their SourceAmerica Design Challenge production and packaging improvements report, this machine keeps Weaver competitive with other top companies in the area while providing opportunities for people with disabilities. Not only is Weaver more competitive, but they can now take on more contracts thanks to the increased efficiency and production delivered by the new system.

Kirby Harder has been teaching technology and engineering and design classes at Copley Fairlawn City Schools for the past 20 years. He has built the program up from students doing manual drafting of drawings to using sophisticated 3D software such as SolidWorks and Aspire. Component creation and machine assembly has progressed from strictly manual activities to the use of 3D printers, CNC routers and laser cutters. This has provided his students with the tools to design, develop, build and test projects for real-world applications.

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