|Devin Hamilton has an upbeat demeanor. He describes his condition with humor, and works late into the night to produce work that benefits others with similar conditions.
Most of us are born into a world crafted for our ease of use. Almost everything we touch and
operate is modeled for our comfort, and is derived from the assumption that most people in
this world are built similarly. But not everyone lives under the same circumstances. Some,
unable to utilize these comforts, must overcome a variety of challenges to function in this
world. Like wealth, survival and pride, the need to master one’s surroundings has proven to be one of the great motivators of humanity. And with great motivation comes great innovation.
Over the past few years, fifth year Mechanical
Engineering Technology majors Devin Hamilton
and Beth Kiefer developed a deep friendship
while working their way through RIT’s MET
program. Last summer, the two began their
greatest project yet: an improved wheelchair
design. This is a project that they find important,
challenging and deeply personal.
Drawing From Experience
Hamilton has cerebral palsy, a condition that
requires him to use a power chair and places
certain limitations on his physical dexterity. His
condition makes speaking difficult, but over
the years, Kiefer has become adept at relaying
whatever message Hamilton was trying to express
to those having trouble understanding him. This
close connection adds a unique dimension to their
friendship, as well as their working relationship.
Together the pair has created many devices to
assist Hamilton. There’s a custom dock for his
cell phone charger, a mount for his iPad and
keyboard, and even an eye-tracking webcam
system that allows him to operate his computer.
But as impressive as these examples are, their
newest endeavor is poised to push their creative
and technical boundaries even further.
Currently, they have been collaborating on a
power chair featuring a new ergonomic design. By
allowing the operator to kneel forward slightly, the
chair is intended to redirect some of the pressure
from the operator’s back. “In a standard ‘captain’s
chair’ wheelchair, all of your body weight is pushed
down to the bottom of your spine and hips. This can
cause pressure sores and back pain,” explained Kiefer.
“The kneeling style seating distributes body weight
throughout the hips, thighs and knees, alleviating
pain and reducing risk for pressure sores.”
A completely new design, the chair is designed
with Hamilton in mind and is deeply personal to
him. “I always knew I wanted to design a chair
here at RIT,” he said. After about a year of drafting
different designs, he reached out to Kiefer this
past summer to begin fleshing out these ideas.
A sponsorship by the Center for Student
Innovation (CSI) provided the funding for Kiefer
and Hamilton to begin designing a prototype.
When drawing up these prototypes, they tested
two main approaches. Initially, they began building
their new design using components from existing
electric wheelchairs. While having pre-existing
parts was convenient, the duo felt limited by design
compromises that restricted their ideas. Instead,
they decided to build the chair from scratch.
Design is a shared process for the two, and
Hamilton, with his familiarity with power chairs,
brought a range of ideas to the table. They ran all
ideas by each other and shared the work in the
machine shop. They began to track their progress
on a blog as part of their agreement with the CSI.
Over the course of the summer, the two contributed
up to 80 hours a week. By fall, there was still a long
way to go, even with all the time they had already
invested. However, the two were able to secure
something they had never imagined: a buzz.
|Devin Hamilton reaches to control a 3-D printer to build a plastic mold for a cell phone charger he designed. The machine was out of service, and Devin had to drive back to his office.
Spreading the Word
Word of Kiefer and Hamilton’s work spread quickly
across RIT and into the assistive technology industry, a
broad field dedicated to developing devices intended
to aid people with physical impairments. The two
were asked to present their designs and ideas at several
conferences and institutions. They spoke at the Lily
Conference on College and University Teaching and
at Keuka College, where they discussed previous
projects and strategies. When guest speaker
Matthew B. Crawford came to campus to speak
about “making the case for working with your
hands,” the two were asked to present during his
workshop. This was the kind of networking and
support that money couldn’t buy.
Kiefer and Hamilton have also had the full
support of their faculty advisors and consultants
here at RIT. They work closely with their faculty
advisor and Manufacturing and Mechanical
Engineering Technology professor Carl Lundgren,
who Hamilton speaks with almost everyday. The
two acknowledge how important it is to have the
assistance they’ve received from Lundgren. They
have also received help from MET Professor
Dr. Robert Garrick, CSI Director Jon Schull,
Engineering Facilities Manager John Bonzo, and
even RIT alumni Maynard Kearney. “They kind
of keep us in check,” Kiefer joked. Jests aside, the
experience has given the pair an opportunity to
examine RIT’s innovation community from the
|Devin Hamilton and his friend, Elizabeth Kiefer, work together on a lathe that is changing the shape of a pipe used in the construction of a new powerchair. Building powerchairs is part of Devin’s passion to create assistive technologies.
The Road Ahead
Both Hamilton and Kiefer remark that the amount
of access, resources and assistance they’ve received
during the course of their project has been
outstanding. “We’re getting to see internally how
RIT works,” Kiefer stated. Hamilton added, “We
might not get these resources at other schools.” They
both joined the MET program because of a passion
for creative design and manufacturing. They’re
passionate about their work, and both love to get
their hands dirty. They pushed through a series of
setbacks, as several technical aspects of the project
stalled work. At one point, Hamilton recalled, “We
were doing a lot of learning, not a lot of doing.”
By undertaking this hefty task in addition to
their normal coursework, they’ve learned the
value of putting their skills into practice. They’ve
also been able to spread the word about the work
that RIT and its students are capable of, an act
beneficial to students Institute-wide.
Graduating this spring, Kiefer concludes her
coursework at the end of this quarter. Although
she is still undecided about future work, she has
considered the assistive technology field an option
due to her experience. Hamilton hopes to begin
his own assistive technology business, in addition
to developing an assistive technology program at
RIT, possibly in cooperation with other Rochester
universities. Though the wheelchair is still far from
being finalized, Hamilton remains committed to
seeing it through to the end, even after he graduates
in the spring. Kiefer plans on contributing as much
as she can to the project, depending on where her
approaching career takes her.
When the pair showed me a mold of the
wheelchair’s base and models of the motorized
wheels they’ll use to move it, I couldn’t help but
notice the same sense of pride seen in their earlier
projects. When I first arrived for the interview,
they’d been working for hours on end. And when I
left, I’m almost positive they went right back to it.