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Featured on: NC State Engineering News

NC State Engineers Help Workers With Developmental Disabilities

Christmas came early to one local business seeking to employ teenagers with developmental disabilities. Thanks to a team of North Carolina State University Engineering students who designed and built a user-friendly workstation, the workers can accomplish their job tasks more easily.

The project began in early fall 2004 when Rick and Jackie Holcombe contacted the College of Engineering for help in creating a workstation that is easy for their prospective employees to use and safe to operate. The Holcombes’ business, It’s Lagniappe, is a small startup company in Morrisville aimed at employing teenagers who have developmental disabilities, including the Holcombe’s daughter, Lindsay.

“We started the business because our daughter is home-schooled and needed to learn job skills. Unfortunately, there is a very long waiting period to be placed in environments like Wake Enterprises that offer job skills training for people with developmental disabilities, and the school system does not offer training for special-needs students who are home-schooled.”

Dr. Hamid Davoodi, a lecturer in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at NC State, saw the Holcombes’ request and approached some of his students with the idea of having the project fulfill an engineering elective requirement. Four of his senior mechanical engineering students, David Anderson, Nathan Houston, Bernard “BJ” Meier and George Ware, were immediately interested in the proposition.

“The students were very excited about this opportunity,” said Davoodi. “They set up a schedule, created the design and met each of their targeted goals on time with little supervision. I have been very impressed with their professionalism and their enthusiasm. The project had a number of challenges to be addressed, and they have been able to work as a team to resolve each issue, including finding a source of funding.”

The home business produces bags of buckwheat hulls for sale on the Internet. Buckwheat hulls are used for a variety of health, craft and beauty products. The workers transfer the hulls from a 700-pound bag into individual 2-pound bags.

The assignment for the engineering students was to design a repackaging workstation that could safely deliver the buckwheat hulls from the bulk bag to an accessible location for repackaging. The workstation also needed to incorporate features that would allow the workers to easily measure two pounds of hulls without having to weigh each individual bag.

“This project gave us a sample of how real-world engineering works,” said Meier. “We had to meet with the client and consider the design constraints and create a timeline for accomplishing goals to keep the project on track.”

The team delivered the completed prototype workstation on December 4.

“The design far exceeds our dreams,” says Jackie Holcombe. “This workstation is exactly what we needed and is so user-friendly. We are very appreciative of all the work these students and Dr. Davoodi have done to help us. The new workstation prototype will make it possible for us to expand our business and hire more workers. There are several people with disabilities who have been waiting for this opportunity, and now we are closer to being able to offer them a chance to work and learn.”

“We had a great time working on this project,” said Ware. “We learned how to use the strengths of each team member to accomplish our goals. It was a very rewarding experience.”

All four of the engineering students plan to graduate in May 2005. Thanks to the new workstation and increased demand for the product, Jackie Holcombe believes they will be able to pay minimum wage without external support, and she looks forward to the possibility of partnering with other businesses that employ workers with disabilities.