A product developed by a group of UConn engineering students as their Senior Design project is now on the market and has a patent pending.
The product enables customers of West Hartford-based Legrand/Wiremold to extend the company’s Tele-Power Poles – hollow metal units that encase and channel wires and cables from the ceiling to desks and workstations in large open spaces – for use with higher ceilings.
Legrand/Wiremold has a long history of product innovation and improvement. But like all companies, the firm’s new product development resources are not bottomless.
When customers needed a way to couple an additional length of pole in order to reach higher ceilings, the company approached the UConn School of Engineering for assistance in designing an extender unit.
“It was a project that we would have liked to develop ourselves, but given other priorities, it was low on the list,” says John Marrotte, engineering manager for Legrand/Wiremold.
Legrand/Wiremold has been sponsoring projects for UConn’s Engineering Senior Design program for several years. Senior Design is the capstone experience of an undergraduate’s years, in which students draw on their classroom experiences, but in a non-classroom setting.
“This is where they can really compare theory with the real world,” says Thomas Barber, a professor-in-residence who manages the Senior Design program for mechanical engineering students.
Beyond Book Learning
The Senior Design program begins with student teams carefully analyzing a design challenge presented by a sponsoring company. Team members meet with company and faculty advisors to explore the nature of the challenge, the client’s needs, economic and branding issues, and other aspects of the design problem. Then, over the course of usually two semesters, the student team develops one or more product or process designs, carries out computer modeling, builds a prototype, and conducts performance tests to demonstrate the effectiveness of the new design solution.
During the 2008/09 academic year, a team of mechanical engineering seniors (who have since graduated) – Daniel Laurinitis, Allison Daub, and John DiBenedetto – took on the Legrand/Wiremold design challenge. The Tele-Power Poles, which are shipped to customers across the country, range in size from 10 feet to 15 feet. Their length makes them susceptible to damage during shipping and unqualified for overnight delivery, and also difficult to handle at the job site.
The team was charged with devising a new unit that would allow customers to couple lengths of Tele-Power Pole together, while ensuring that the finished unit would retain the structural integrity of the original pole. They also had to take into account such diverse elements as aesthetics, manufacturability, and cost – a stretch for many engineering students who have focused chiefly on design aspects.
The team enjoyed full access to Legrand/Wiremold facilities and assistance from engineering and production staff, including Legrand/Wiremold’s Daron Callahan and co-op engineering student Sean Urquhart.
“This was a very big advantage for us. It gave us access to everything so we were able to test and revise,” says DiBenedetto.
At UConn, the students were advised by associate professor of mechanical engineering Zbigniew Bzymek during weekly meetings throughout both semesters.
The team developed a method of rigidly attaching sections together using inner sleeves and a clip. The inner sleeves are fastened to the covers of the extenders on one end during production, and they smoothly slide into the receiving covers to provide the pole with lateral strength. The final version of the design has a dual sleeve and clip and a set screw. To test the strength of the new design, the team developed a 3-D model using a CAD program called COSMOSWorks, and subjected the prototype to physical testing as well.
The team also developed wiring procedures and established optimal extender lengths to match market demand. Designing a commercial product also meant that it had to meet the National Electric Code standards, the Underwriters Laboratory certification, and the requirements set forth by Wiremold.
“They had to evaluate the product analytically and then verify the design with tests on the actual product,” says Marrotte. “It’s more than going by the book. This is a lot of work.”
Daub says, “Not only did we strive to design a flexible product, but our team also wanted a product that would be easy to use in the field. The benefit of the extender is that it is used to build an entire Tele-Power Pole or extend a Tele-Power Pole in the field, so it should be easy for the field technician to construct.”
Prototype to Patent
In addition to design and engineering, the students were also involved in a patent search on the new product.
Tele-Power Pole Extenders became an official part of the Legrand/Wiremold product line in early 2010. The company has applied for a patent on the design.
The product literature enthuses about the Pole Extender: “it makes transporting and installing power poles a snap, literally. Just snap together 5 foot sections to create a Tele-Power Pole or extend the length of your existing pole.”
Adds Marrotte, himself a former Senior Design student, “It’s great to see an actual product come from all of this hard work.”