Creative Cubism: Design Challenge Team Improves Productivity with an 3D-Printed Block

By Terrence Nowlin

With initiative and innovation beyond their years, members of Lawrence Technological University's LABB team developed a simple but clever block of plastic that changes lives. The team's invention, the Cube XL, earned them a spot in the finals for SourceAmerica's annual Design Challenge competition.

The LABB team (named by combining member initials), worked to provide a solution to employees of Services to Enhance Potential, or STEP. The organization, a member of the SourceAmerica nonprofit network, met with the team five times at STEP's Dearborn, Michigan, location to create the workplace solution.

STEP employees assemble struts by attaching two pieces of metal with a bolt and nut. The shape of the pieces and placement of the bolt opening presented a challenge for employees with dexterity issues. The Cube XL's special shape was designed with computer-assisted design drafting software. The cube holds the bolt and keeps pieces of metal in position after being threaded onto the bolt so the nut can be affixed. The result is ease-of-use and nearly doubled productivity.

Cristi Bell-Huff and Heidi Morano serve as the team's coaches and instruct the course in which the project was conducted. Morano said that the students identified the problem as part of the curriculum.

"Even for the teammates, they struggled to do this task just with trying to line up the hole, get the bolt through the hole, put the nut on," Morano said. "Their solution is really elegant when you see it. It's a 3-D-printed piece that is beautiful. It fits all different size struts."

Steve Slayton, the director of quality assurance and business development at STEP, said that the larger solution entailed more than the Cube XL.

"What the students did was really cool," Slayton said. "They made the whole process more efficient so that anyone using the tool could create more parts more efficiently."

He added that the solution eliminated the requirement of using two hands, allowing people with the use of only one hand to easily assemble struts.

"One of the big things they've done is open up the opportunity for somebody who couldn't originally do that job," Bell-Huff said.

The LABB team is one of two representing the sophomore engineering design course at LTU in Southfield, Michigan. This is the university‘s second year to participate in the SourceAmerica Design Challenge. Bell-Huff says the competition is part of a unique approach to engineering education.

"I think we're probably one of the very few universities that teach a sophomore engineering design course," she said. "It's even before they have all of their technical expertise and all of their core engineering classes. They actually spend a semester on a design project that they've identified on their own … in partnership with a nonprofit."

Bell-Huff said the team's work with STEP has brought a perspective to the students that couldn't be replicated within the classroom.

"We, of course, saw the social implications, but we also saw this opportunity for students to talk to real customers and create a real product," she said. "That has made all the difference in this class."

Team member Bram Ligon also recognized the value in having an actual end-user for their design.

"The project was very eye-opening for me personally," Ligon said. "The ability to work with people with a disability was very beneficial because it changes your whole perspective on the work life and challenges of a world unknown to most people."

While STEP benefits from improved workplace efficiencies, Slayton said he also sees the value to students.

"They're creating real solutions for real people who really need them and actually use them when they're done," he said. "That's an experience that not a lot of students get. The students relish it. They take to our clients and they don't want to let them down. It becomes a very personal project."