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Machine Design

A feeding machine for disabled kids

A robotic device helps children with severe physical limitations perform most tasks involved in eating.

The students built the prototype feeding mechanism for $1,200 and believe they can get the final device close to $900.

Without it, children must completely depend on others. "Someone has to prepare the food, but the device allows more independence at meals," says Mike Woodley, a senior mechanical engineering student at Saginaw Valley State University near Saginaw, Mich. A child using the device activates it by a protruding lever. A spoon then scoops food from a plate and slowly brings it toward the child's mouth.

Woodley and fellow students Adam Walls and Jason Alderson designed and built the device. But the idea came from the nearby Millet Learning Center, a school for children with moderate to severe physical disabilities. Occupational therapists there wanted a feeding system that would be less expensive than the $3,500 devices they were using. "The concept was for a device with a lot of moving mechanisms in a small space, light weight, low noise, and at a lower cost than what's on the market," says Woodley.

The Solid Edge modeler from UGS Inc., Plano, Tex. (, played a part in the design. "We wanted to visualize what we were doing and make presentations," adds Woodley. "With a solid modeler, we could be more sure we didn't have interferences and that things like bolt holes lined up better than with drawings. And solid models would give us nice visuals to use in our final presentations, which are a big part of the grade."

The three students had not previously used the program, "But I learned it in about two days as did everyone I knew," says Woodley. The team built the feeding device as an assembly of solid objects. Woodley says the software easily handled the complex assembly and its sheet-metal modeling proved useful for designing brackets and unfolding them for manufacturing.

"The modeler also quickly calculated moments of inertia and radius of gyration for some oddly shaped parts, operations that would have been difficult by hand," says Woodley. The FEA program, DesignSpace from Ansys Inc., Pittsburgh (, checked the team's engineering calculations. The students wrapped up the project with animations in a presentation that included a fly-around of the digital model showing the complexities of the assembly.

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