Engineering students win first place in assistive technology competition

A senior engineering project created three new jobs for the legally blind in New York.

Two students who worked on the project, Jack Lucas and Natalie Zanco, accepting the grand prize.
Two students who worked on the project, Jack Lucas and Natalie Zanco, accepting the grand prize.
Two students who worked on the project, Jack Lucas and Natalie Zanco, accepting the grand prize.

A group of senior engineering students recently took home the top prize at the Cultivating Resources for Employment with Assistive Technology (CREATE) competition.

Students from three public university engineering programs were awarded a total of $30,000 in prize money for their assistive technology inventions from New York State Industries for the Disabled (NYSID, www.nysid.org) during its largest-ever CREATE Symposium at the Legislative Office Building in Albany.

CREATE partners engineering students with NYSID member agencies so that students can apply their classroom success to a practical experience, helping workers with disabilities become more productive.

The Binghamton University team received a grand prize of $15,000 for a project done in conjunction with the Association of Vision Rehabilitation and Employment. (AVRE).

Natalie Zanco, a biomedical engineering student, and Jack Lucas, a mechanical engineering student, accepted the award.

The team also included Dong Woo “Chris” Shin from biomedical engineering, Jong Hwan Ha and Max Sokolovski from mechanical engineering and junior Jesse Pelzar from computer engineering.

The project that won first place was an automatic up-down door conveyor system for AVRE’s paper factory.

Nearly 90 percent of AVRE’s employees are legally blind. The company was hoping to expand and hire more employees but had limitations on available space, so it asked the engineering
students if they were interested in taking on the challenge.

“We knew we wanted to work with AVRE right after visiting the factory,” Zanco said. “We met so many great people there. Even some of the top people in the company came out to greet us.”

The students created a solution to increase production. Their project allows for two conveyor belts to run one on top of the other with a door between the two. Depending on whether the employees are putting together boxes with six or 12 reams of paper, the door will automatically change conveyer belts after the appropriate number of reams pass through.

This allows more boxes to be assembled within the same square footage.

Not only did the group need to find a way to increase production in a limited space, the team also had to keep in mind specific challenges that legally blind employees might face.

“Legally blind doesn’t always mean the person can’t see anything. It can mean a wide variety of things. Sometimes, it just means things have to have a clear contrast to be seen or that certain colors are difficult to see,” Zanco explained.

The team created a control panel with these things in mind. It has clear, white text on a black background and vibrant, distinctly colored buttons. The text is even slightly raised so the
outline of each letter can be felt.

Thanks to their creation, AVRE has already said it will be able to hire at least three more legally blind employees.

“We had a chance to actually test the system inside the factory,” Zanco said. “It was awesome to be able to work so closely with AVRE. It made the project really hit home.”

Zanco said that winning the CREATE competition was really just the “icing on top of the cake.”

“We were so excited to have completed the project and actually have it installed at AVRE. How often do you get to make a real impact like that as a student? Winning the competition was just an extra, unexpected benefit!”