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From Ergonomics 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 Cherin.

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 pro bono.

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 bridge.

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.

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