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Dayton Engineer

Engineering students help nonprofit cut expenses

By Sarina Tacovic, University of Dayton Marketing and Communications

Troy, Ohio-based Kids Read Now, a nonprofit focused on children's literacy, wanted to get books into the hands of more children, but struggled to find a more efficient, less expensive way to bundle books. So the charity enlisted University of Dayton students through the Engineers Week design challenge to come up with a solution.

"The problem we're facing is getting rubber bands on the stacks of books we send to kids over the summer without tearing up employees’ hands and crumpling the books," said Leib Lurie, co-founder of Kids Read Now. "It sounds simple, but last summer we sent over 20,000 books and that process cost us $70,000 in labor."

The solution came from two students, Jielong "Jacky" Cai, an aerospace engineering doctoral student, UD aerospace lab manager and introductory engineering design instructor; and Lucas Duncan, an undergraduate mechanical engineering student who works with Cai in the lab.

Cai and Duncan designed a rod and hook system that holds preloaded rubber bands and serves as an arm to help open and close the bands with less strain. The hook can be mounted on a table as a station or on the user’s arm to make it more portable.

"This is a simple mechanical device," Cai said. "It frees up an employee's hand whereas before, one hand had to hold the stack of books while the other hand spread the rubber band. It's a really uncomfortable process. Our design makes the rubber band easier to spread, reduces the stress on their hands and increases their speed with preloaded bands."

Using a 3D printer to create their design, the team was able to make multiple iterations and fix design flaws quickly by fabricating new parts overnight. It also made the prototype less expensive and easy to maintain without a technician, both cost-effective factors for the nonprofit. 

"Usually you don’t see impact from an engineering project until later," Lurie said. "We will see it in a few months this summer when we expect to save half the time spent bundling books and tens of thousands of dollars in costs with their model."

Sponsored this year by Kids Read Now and the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network, the annual design challenge offers students the chance to develop a solution in response to a problem presented by an organization and to create a functioning prototype in just six weeks.  

"It's one thing to design something on paper, it's something altogether more challenging to make it real," said Ken Bloemer, director of the Visioneering Center at the School of Engineering. "It's an incredible learning experience to take a design from a conceptual idea to a functioning prototype. These experiences make the difference between good and great engineers."

Cai and Duncan beat 13 other teams in the design competition.

"We really like seeing excited, enthusiastic students tackle a project with vim and vigor," Lurie said. "This challenge was a lot of fun because it was a physical need, not just software and layouts as we experienced two years ago in another partner project. It has been fun to watch, and the biggest thing, at the end of the day, is that we expect thousands of children to benefit directly by boosting their reading skills over the summer."

Click here to see a video about this year's challenge.

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