to Bridge Design
By Kristen Cole
Looking at the colorful
plastic pellets, each about the size of a lentil, that
were recently displayed before a Smith classroom, it's
hard to understand the difficulties that go into their manufacture.
Yet the heavy byproduct of their production causes physical strain
on the workers at the General Electric plant in Selkirk, New York -- which
manufactures the pellets around the clock. The company
has now turned to students in the Smith College Picker Engineering
Program for suggestions to make the work less physically demanding.
A team of engineering students used a bowlful of the pellets,
which are normally destined for melting and molding into common wares,
to relate the tale of the GE workers.
Senior engineering students Jie Zheng,
Xiao-Ning Xu and Kristen Wright (above, left to right)
and Rachael Germansky, Liz Koenig and Fope Folowosele (below,
left to right) discuss the design projects for their final
year of the Picker Engineering Program. Photos by Gregory
The four-student team is one of eight teams of the altogether 28 students in
the Senior Design Clinic this year charged with solving real-world engineering
dilemmas. Like their peers in engineering programs around the nation, the Smith
students have developed a symbiotic relationship with their community: Students
gain experience and organizations gain free, or nearly free, engineering expertise.
In Smith's case, some projects are sponsored and others are completed
General Electric is "particularly interested in working with the students
for their fresh ideas and new take on the process," explains Susannah
Howe, design clinic director and visiting assistant professor in Smith's
Picker Engineering Program. "Since the students aren't biased by
the previous GE processes, they bring their own perspectives and ideas to the
table and may well suggest some ideas previously overlooked by GE engineers."
This year, students in the Senior Design Clinic also number among their "clients" Northampton's
Department of Public Works, a local citizens group and the college.
For the Northampton DPW, students will redesign a 1,300-foot-long street called
Ridgewood Terrace, including its drainage, utilities and sidewalks; for the
citizens group, a team will design a plan to turn an aging steel truss bridge,
which was originally built to accommodate horse and buggy, into a useable pedestrian
For Smith College, one team will research and design an alternative generator
for the planned science and engineering building and another will design a
campus navigation system for visually impaired students. And for GE, a team
will address ergonomics.
Ergonomics is the relationship between human capabilities and the workplace,
with the goal of minimizing risks and injuries, according to Katherine Pratt '05. "You
as students have all faced the situation of sitting at a computer and typing
a paper," notes Pratt. "Did you ever get up and your neck was stiff?" That
can be addressed through ergonomics.
Several areas of the manufacturing process seem particularly physically demanding
for the 120 employees who work rotating shifts at the Selkirk plant, according
to the GE team, which also included Hannah Portello-Swagel, project leader;
Mekkin Lynch; and Rachael Germansky.
The team showed their classmates a photo of a common toy -- one used to
squeeze Play-Doh into long, spaghetti-like strands. More complex extruders -- machines
in which materials are forced through in an effort to form a certain shape -- are
used at the Selkirk plant in a way that often produces a byproduct that is
heavy and must be plied off the floor for disposal.
The team plans to present an ergonomic analysis of the plant this spring. In
the meantime, team members offered some advice to their peers: "If you
take regular breaks at certain times and change the height of your computer
screen, you won't be stiff," suggests Pratt.