Freshman Engineering Students Design Improved Treadmill for Wheelchair Athletes

Engineering Design and Communication

It’s been a long week for students in the Engineering Design and Communication (EDC) course.

As their first quarter at Northwestern comes to an end, students in the freshman design class have completed what may be their grandest collegiate accomplishment to date: a prototype of a computerized piece of workout equipment for wheelchair athletes.

“At first, it felt like we were in over our heads,” said Vinithra Rajagopalan, as the class assembled the prototype’s frame last week in the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center. “But now that we’re nearing the end, it’s just exciting. It feels like we’re actually making a difference.”

Engineering Design and Communication is a two-quarter course required of new McCormick undergraduates; in the first quarter, students create projects to help the physically disabled at client organizations like the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Children’s Memorial Hospital.

This fall, section 11 of the class focused on the trainer – an exercise device, built to accommodate various shapes of racing and sporting wheelchairs, that simulates wind resistance – for athletes at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s Fitness Center & Sports Program.

The students started by interviewing athletes and staff at the Rehabilitation Institute to learn about the shortcomings of the institute’s current equipment. They learned athletes were not able to get onto the trainer by themselves; two staff members were required to lift them. Furthermore, the trainer only provided one level of resistance, and it only accommodated one shape of athletic wheelchair, precluding many athletes from using the machine.

“We asked the EDC class to tackle all these shortcomings and create a piece of exercise equipment that could be utilized much like a treadmill, but for wheelchair users,” said Rehabilitation Institute Program Specialist Eric Johnson.

The result was the “Lone Roller.” The prototype addressed all these concerns and also featured a locking system to secure wheelchairs in place and a computerized control system that allows athletes to vary the strenuousness of their workouts and to get data readouts of their performance.

This device will help the institute with basic exercise needs, athlete training, performance testing, and potentially research projects, Johnson said.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled to have this piece of equipment as a staple for our sports and fitness programs,” Johnson said.

Completing this project with so few students – and in such a short amount of time – is quite an achievement, said Aaron Stebner, an EDC course instructor and PhD student with years of industry experience.

In a commercial market, Stebner said, the trainer prototype would be assigned to a large team of experienced engineers, professional assemblers, and wirers, and it would still take 20 to 25 weeks to complete the job.

“It is absolutely remarkable that a class of 15 first-quarter engineering students researched, designed, manufactured, wrote software, and built a fully-functioning product for their client in 10 weeks,” Stebner said.

Watch a video about a past EDC project, a pill dispenser designed for a client without the use of his arms or legs.