Engineering mobility: LeTourneau students streamline wheelchair construction process
Jan. 3, 2018 at 11:53 p.m.
When Hope Haven International builds wheelchairs in its Guatemala factory, a worker has to hammer little metal fittings into a plywood seat bottom.
Or at least he did.
Now, thanks to a handful of LeTourneau University engineering students, workers use a hydraulic press to complete the task.
"Now he can operate that hydraulic press at about three times (quicker to) put them all in that way," said Norman Reese, an associate professor at the Longview-based university. "It'll be a lot easier on his body and faster and provide a better-quality product."
LeTourneau's Frontier Wheels group, an engineering program capstone course led by Reese, traveled to Antigua, Guatemala, in December to work with Hope Haven International at its wheelchair factory. It's one of several different engineering teams at LeTourneau working to solve problems across the world, with the main goals focusing on wheelchair design and improvements, as well as manufacturer's testing methods, in developing countries.
"There's about 20 million people in the world that need wheelchairs that don't have them," Reese said. "It's a very different situation than in America, where you have insurance that will provide a wheelchair for anybody that needs it. Most countries don't have that, and that means being stuck at home their whole lives or end up begging on the street because they can't walk. So there are several good organizations around the world that are trying to raise funds to purchase or build wheelchairs and provide those for the people that need them in the developing world."
Hope Haven International builds and provides wheelchairs from its Guatemala factory, but Reese noted the process is "very manual." The goal of December's trip was to improve some of Hope Haven's tooling and fixtures in its manufacturing process.
Four LeTourneau students, Reese and Reese's 11-year-old son made the trip, carrying to-be-assembled parts of a new hydraulic press they'd build at the factory. The group had a slight hiccup in getting all the parts to Guatemala, when they learned at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport that a seasonal embargo was in place and they couldn't take some of the larger pieces.
"We took the pieces that we could take and we had to put them in different pieces of luggage and we got them down there, but the long panels that the press is built on we couldn't take with us," Reese said. "They were just too long to meet the requirements." The parts they couldn't carry were replaced in Guatemala.
Frontier Wheels has been going to Guatemala for several years, as well as to South Africa.
"Each year we have a different project, and I incorporate students into assisting that effort either in wheelchair design or wheelchair testing — how do we test wheelchairs so that these manufacturers know this wheelchair's good, this is easy enough to roll and functions better, lasts longer in other places?"
So along with the new hydraulic press, the group also had a number of other student-led projects they did. That includes working with a router machine so that the factory could cut out plastic parts consistently and building therapy bars for a young girl in the local village to work on her walking skills.
"All the improvements to the factory are basically helping the factory build wheelchairs that are a better quality with less labor," he said. "So able to build more wheelchairs at a better quality with these tools that we helped them with."