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Interdisciplinary project helps create Wheelchair Escalator for disabled

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September 21, 2017

Millions of Americans rely on wheelchairs or walking aids such as a cane every day. In fact, some 54 million Americans — a full 19 percent of the non-institutionalized population — suffer from a physical or cognitive disability.

Through a special project with the John Dingell Veterans Hospital in downtown Detroit, University of Detroit Mercy Engineering Professors Darrell Kleinke and Nassif Rayess and Nursing Professor Molly McClelland worked with several Detroit Mercy engineering and nursing students to design and build the prototype of a powered platform lift called the Wheelchair Escalator. The product was designed to safely transfer a person in a wheelchair up a three- to 10-step staircase, moving vertically and horizontally, mirroring the action of an escalator. 

This project demonstrates the collaborative nature of Detroit Mercy’s academic programs and the interdisciplinary approach the University takes when providing students with a truly unique research and cooperative education opportunity. In addition, projects of this nature help the institution spur interest in women to enroll in STEM-based fields by demonstrating how their work can make a positive impact on those who need help to improve their quality of life. To further illustrate Detroit Mercy’s focus on this effort, the University recently won a Clare Boothe Luce Program grant of $465,000 to establish a tenure-track engineering professorship and hired Megan O. Conrad, Ph.D., in July. She will serve as a mentor for women in STEM fields. And in April of this year, Detroit Mercy nursing and engineering students worked with students from other institutions in southeast Michigan to unveil life-changing results of their capstone project at the VA Medical Center. This project demonstrated their Walk & Life Cane, which helps disable vets lift their feet when sitting and help them walk (http://bit.ly/2uYXKS8)

Detroit Mercy’s collaborative, cross-discipline technical approach to solving problems provides a unique learning experience for students that other institutions cannot rival. 

McClelland is very pleased with the efforts of students in working together to help people in need. 

“Several years ago, one of our clients was a double amputee and lived in a lower-level apartment with his wife, who was a small person and had difficulties getting him out of the apartment. And there was no elevator available,” she explained. “Detroit Mercy nursing students helped problem-solve this issue, which involved working closely with engineering students from Detroit Mercy and Ohio Northern University to develop the device. This kind of collaboration is helpful for the client and also teaches our students how to use the knowledge they gain to work with others, collaborate across and between disciplines and work together to help those in need,” she added. 

Rayess agreed. 

“Innovation is a team sport, requiring meaningful and direct contributions from end users as well as subject matter experts from various disciplines,” he said. “The quest for innovative solutions often fails because the various players are unable to understand each other. For example, an engineer who is completely focused on the high technology aspect of a project could dismiss the necessity to delve deep into the words of a client in order to fully understand and define the problem. The experience afforded to the students by these types of interdisciplinary projects helps them understand and appreciate the different points of view and sets them in good stead for their professional careers,” he added. 

Students have found this project to be extremely beneficial to their studies and their ability to apply concepts taught in the classroom directly to an effort that will improve the quality of life for many. Detroit Mercy’s cooperative education program, which was established in 1911, is one of the oldest programs in the U.S. and enjoys corporate relationships with hundreds of organizations. 

“The co-op made my classes more concrete, especially my design classes. In class, when I would create designs, I would not get to see them as actual parts. Working on the Wheelchair Escalator as a co-op gave me the chance to create a product from design through manufacturing and assembly,” explained Detroit Mercy student Molly Laird. “Being able to see my design come to life made engineering more 'real.'  Co-op also taught me about various aspects of engineering before I learned about them in class. For example, while working on the Wheelchair Escalator, I learned about design for manufacturing before taking the required manufacturing course,” she added.

The lift was originally demonstrated to faculty and the public at a Detroit Mercy/VA Hospital reveal event in April of 2015 and proved to be a success. Detroit-area entrepreneur and inventor Ray Okonski visited the hospital and was so impressed with the device that he felt the students should create the product for commercial use.

“I truly felt that the Wheelchair Escalator was new, novel and needed, a ride that changes lives and helps others,” said Okonski, who served as president of Michigan Dynamics until his retirement 15 years ago. Okonski is an experienced inventor with a successful background in sales, marketing and as an executive.

Okonski offered the University and students assistance with the project by supplying funding and his recommendations to meet all American Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. Currently, Okonski has a patent pending with the U.S. government for the product. He established Wheelchair Escalator LLC to sell the design, all manufacturing rights and patent rights to an existing manufacturer of similar equipment who has manufacturing capability.

According to Okonski, “we hope to negotiate an upfront fee and then agree upon a continuing royalty with 75 percent allocated to the University.”

The project began as part of a capstone project called "Faces on Design," with Detroit Mercy engineering and nursing students. Seniors in Detroit Mercy’s Mechanical Engineering program partner with Nursing students on a project designed and manufactured to help a veteran with a disability. The program began in 2007 and continues to help veterans each year.

To watch a demonstration of the wheelchair escalator, please visit http://bit.ly/2vkSRhi. For more about the Detroit Mercy College of Engineering & Science and College of Health Professions, please visit https://www.udmercy.edu/academics/index.php.

— By Gary Lichtman and Gary Erwin

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