The CSULA team made it to the SourceAmerica Design Challenge finals for the third time.

By Kerry McGinley

They made work easier, faster and more comfortable for employees with disabilities. They learned to engineer solutions with the end-user in mind. But perhaps most importantly, the California State University Los Angeles team that made it to the finals of the SourceAmerica Design Challenge learned they're not so different from the employees on the production line they remodeled.

"I look at things a little differently now," said Sandra Hernandez, a senior majoring in Industrial Technology. "I learned that how each person is different. I thought having a disability hindered a person, but it doesn't."

The Design Challenge is an annual competition for high school and college students hosted by SourceAmerica, a central nonprofit agency dedicated to creating employment opportunities for people with disabilities. This year it drew entries from more than 150 schools across the country. Teams of students pair up with one of the 1,000-plus nonprofits in the SourceAmerica network that employs people with disabilities to solve a workplace challenge. Students work closely with both employees and management to identify the issue and develop prototypes of technology to improve the work experience for employees with disabilities. The CSULA team is one of three college teams to make it to the final round.

"The SourceAmerica Design Challenge provides us with a venue to do something," said Paul Liu, the professor who coached the team. "We can actually contribute to society. We see the results not only that we can test our engineering skills, we can improve the working environment – make it better, faster."

This year marks the third time CSULA has made it to the finals of the Design Challenge. But this year, the CSULA team took a different approach to improving the workplace for people with disabilities.

"We created a system that ended up being very, very effective," Hernandez said. "It's more of a process than a piece of technology."

The four members of the CSULA team worked with SourceAmerica member nonprofit FVO Solutions in Pasadena, California. After consulting management and employees at FVO Solutions, the students developed the LEAN Master, a new approach to the nonprofit's fabrication process for a 2-hole puncher. By reconfiguring the workspace and flow of work, the team cut the production cycle time in half, improved productivity, decreased defects and made the employees more comfortable.

The challenge provides a real-world opportunity for students to see the impact of their science, technology, engineering and math skills, Liu said.

"This is more challenging because in other designs, we don't usually think about the operator," Liu said. "We just design something for the design's sake. In this design challenge, we need to look at the capability of those (workers with disabilities) and what can they do and how to make their skills better."

That sense of social responsibility extends beyond the production line of FVO Solutions, he said. The CSULA team also worked with a local high school to support its team's Design Challenge entry. That team finished in the top 15 for the high school division of the competition, he said.

"They're doing quite great," Liu said of the high school students his team mentored. "This is not about us winning. Everybody wins. I think that's our goal."