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Swinging for the fences: Honors students design therapeutic swing for Alabama special needs child

May 22, 2015

Call them the kings and queens of the swing.

Honors students - Junior Lance Harmer, Sophomore Taylor Heilig, and Sophomore Jennifer Ferrari - were part of a group of five engineering students and industrial design student Steven Patterson who worked with Dr. Michele Grimm on an automated therapeutic swing design to be used by an Alabama family with a special needs child.

The group, which also included Junior Ahmed Alhamdani and Junior David Tes, worked closely with Dustin and Amy Chandler of Inverness, Alabama, whose 4-year-old daughter Carly suffers from the genetic disorder CDKL5 (cyclin-dependdent kinase-like 5), which results in early onset, difficult to control seizures and severe neuro-developmental impairments.

According to Chandler, her genetic disorder makes it impossible for Carly to use a traditional playground swing.

Her current swing only has a weight limit of 25-pounds, and the Chandlers feared that one of Carly’s simple pleasures would have been taken away from her. The Chandlers fears were put to rest when Patterson, who knew them through family connections in Alabama, was connected with Dr. Grimm through Life Beyond Borders, a group started by Wayne State College of Engineering alumnus Jim Anderson.

 “Dustin was looking for a swing that could work for his daughter as she grows, as she has outgrown her infant swing,” Grimm wrote in an email. “It had to be something that could provide automatic swinging motion for 4-6 hours and facilitate her growth.”  

Following a Skype interview with Dustin Chandler, the group went to work on prototype. After pouring over the “Snugabunny” swing the Chandlers were currently using, the group used their engineering knowledge, along with the requests and recommendations from Chandler, to come up with a design.

“We looked at park swings used by special needs children to better understand (the) necessary safety aspects to be included,” wrote Ferrari. “We also looked at exercise swings to research different structures that were intended to support a lot of weight. Finally, we explored the different kinds of motorized infant swings available for structure ideas and seat design.”

According to Ferrari, the final design was a blend of the three examples they looked at.

The swing, modeled after the Fisher-Price “Snugabunny Cradle n’ Swing,” features a “more robust frame” that can support up to 200 pounds. “The construction is primarily carbon steel with aluminum on the top of the swing and on the curved support pieces,” wrote Harmer. “These aluminum pieces will be removable and the carbon steel legs will be able to fold upwards, resulting in a more portable device without sacrificing stability.”

It will be able to osculate from side to side with the ability to rotate 180 degrees to simulate forwards and backwards movements. The swing’s flat back allows it to become flush against a wall, saving space in a home. Additionally, a control panel on the side of the device could be controlled via remote control, and an auxiliary port was added to play music from an MP3 player or IPod.

One of Dustin’s concerns about the design was Carly’s safety and comfort. Heilig wrote after researching different types of available safety belts and harnesses, a five-point harness was the best fit to ensure Carly’s safety without sacrificing her comfort level. Furthermore, an emergency stop button was built into the design “in case the user needed some immediate emergency attention,” she wrote. “The swing would immediately stop and alarm so other people could easily and quickly access the user.”

The group’s 3D printout was the talk of the Biomedical Engineering Design Day on Saturday, May 2 and was awarded first place by a panel of judges. The design was also presented at the first annual Wayne State Student Design and Innovation Day on Friday, May 8.

The plan is to continue develop the 3D printout into a full scale model, with the hope of presenting the Chandlers with a manufactured model later this year. Grimm added the connection between the Chandlers and the students has “been amazing.”

“The essence of engineering is working for the community to develop better ways to satisfy the needs of society, whether it is designing a swing or working on prosthetics,” wrote Harmer. “This project has taught us so much more about how engineering serves the community because we immediately were given the opportunity to work on a real-life device with real people that will be affected by it. Learning about engineering from a theoretical standpoint is one thing, but the ability to implement our newly acquired knowledge immediately not only reinforces it, but gives it purpose.” 

To see the article by Molly Davidson from the Shelby County Reporter, click here.