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ME students invent novel popcorn feeder

Jesse and John Waldman

John Waldman, right, with his brother Jesse and the popcorn feeding device invented by a team of mechanical engineering students. (large image)

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Charged with creating a new device for a senior design course in mechanical engineering, a team of College of Engineering students immediately knew their goal.

"We really wanted to make something to help my brother," says team member John Waldman. John's younger brother Jesse is a quadriplegic.

Just 14 weeks later, engineering students Waldman, Jon Filipa, Michael Frank and Timothy Krull had designed and built an accessory device for Jesse's wheelchair that their instructor, David Franchino, calls "beautiful in its simplicity and utility." When Jesse presses a button with the back of his head, the machine dispenses popcorn from a storage hopper into a bowl in front of his mouth, restoring to him the pleasure of his favorite pastime: eating popcorn at the movies.

"When I took my brother to the movies, I would always feed him popcorn," says John. "But sometimes it was a hassle for me, and Jesse didn't like bothering me to ask for more. So, that's how we came up with the popcorn feeder idea."

Jesse, an avid moviegoer, now uses the device an average of once a week. "It works great," he says. "I can eat popcorn all the way through a movie without having to say to my brother, 'Hey, feed me.'"

The students' project might also develop one day into a product for other people who have lost the use of their hands. Patent searches conducted by the students and the UW-Madison's patent management organization, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), indicate the device is truly novel and can likely be patented. WARF is now contacting companies that may want to license the technology.

"I'd love to see this project move forward," says Franchino, who is managing director of Design Concepts, a Madison product design and development firm that donated many of the components used to build the popcorn feeder. "This device will never make anyone rich, but it could provide a significant quality-of-life improvement for people."

In constructing the device, the students' biggest engineering challenge was finding a way to move popcorn from the storage hopper to a bowl in front of Jesse. Pushing the popcorn with a gust of air seemed promising, until an early attempt with a hair dryer shot popcorn all the way to the ceiling.

The students also considered a gravity method. Popcorn would simply slide down a tube from a container positioned above the wheelchair, through a trap door, and into the bowl. But to keep the popcorn from clogging the tube, the students had to make its diameter so large it dumped a mother lode of popcorn into Jesse's lap.

That's when they hit upon the idea of placing an auger — basically a giant screw — inside the tube, a solution Franchino calls "very sound." Powered by an electric motor that runs off Jesse's wheelchair battery, the auger rotates inside the tube, stirring the popcorn and propelling it forward. Jesse can serve himself the exact amount of popcorn he wants by controlling how long the motor runs.

The device can be completely disassembled for easy cleaning and all the parts are dishwasher-safe. The students also built the device only with materials approved for use with food by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Even the glue is FDA-approved. "We didn't want to poison my brother," jokes John.

Whether or not a company decides to license the device, the students will continue to refine it for Jesse's use. Design Concepts recently worked with them to machine a sturdier auger. And topping their wish list of new parts is a quieter motor and better mounting system.

If a company does become interested, it may have to enlist the students to build a new prototype - Jesse won't easily part with his device and the new level of independence it has given him.

"It's really nice to be able to feed myself without needing to have someone else do something up for me," Jesse says. "We just set it up and I'm ready for the day."

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10/4/2004