Engineering Students Build Tire Tester for Free Wheelchair Mission

Seven engineering students spent their summer putting what they’d learned in the classroom to good use on a project for the Free Wheelchair Mission (FWM). Through the Samueli School’s Engineering Design in Industry course, the undergraduate student team was presented with an engineering challenge from the nonprofit organization: how can the company evaluate the durability of the currently used inflatable tire versus the newly designed polyurethane tire?

The Free Wheelchair Mission is a nonprofit organization that provides free wheelchairs to impoverished disabled people in developing nations. “We are always looking for cost-effective ways to improve our wheelchair designs,” says Stuart Nichols, executive director of the FWM. “If we can move to polyurethane tires, we can eliminate the need for pumps and patch kits. But we have to be sure these tires can stand up to the rigors of life in the developing world.”

Now in its 15th year, this 10-week course unites engineering faculty and company-based advisors to provide a unique experience of problem solving in an industrial context. The teams are usually sponsored by the organization, but in this case, it was sponsored by UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake. The students were guided by Engineering Design in Industry Program Director John Garman, Professor Kenneth Mease, mechanical and aerospace engineering, and by Nichols, FWM, who was also the customer.  They built an industrial drum tester to analyze the durability and functionality of the two types of wheelchair tires. The drum tester was recently installed at the FWM’s Irvine office, and was named Bessie.

Bessie can run tires over three surfaces at continuous revolutions per minute for as long as needed to get solid data on durability. The tires are run concurrently over a smooth surface, which serves as the control group, as well as over steel mesh and sand paper, which simulate rougher terrain.  The result is great qualitative analyses of the tires, side-by-side, to see which one, if either, outlasts the other.

“This class, offered every quarter, gives students a real-world engineering experience, and it connects the classroom learning to engineering practice,” says Mease.

It is the fifth year Chancellor Drake has sponsored a team to work on a project for the FWM.   “The class was an interesting opportunity to help an organization that helps people,” says Arturo Arroyo, a junior mechanical engineering student on the team. “I spent a lot of time in the machine shop and learned a lot of critical thinking and leadership skills.”

In addition to Arroyo, the team included Chima Awuchi, Chano Kim, Hoan Pham, Brian Pontius, Gregory Greene and Vincent Vendiola. Machine shop manager Ted Ediss and hand tool instructor Steven Heck also contributed to the project by assisting the students.