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Building Tools Redesigned

At Auburn’s Studio Build, 20-somethings are designing and patenting tools of the future — including a robot that blueprints freshly poured floors and ceilings, mapping walls, vents and plumbing.

A student drafts plans for a tool container.

A student drafts plans for a tool container.

Photos courtesy of Auburn University Studio Build

A magnetic drill attachment to avert neck pain for overhead work. An ergonomic mud pan for drywall finishers. A hard hat that monitors heat stress. A tool storage container that doubles as a field desk. That’s a sampling of the products Auburn University students are creating, applying their technology and design skills to advance the construction industry.

Auburn University’s Studio Build program — part of the Center for Construction Innovation and Collaboration in the McWhorter School of Building Science — unites students and industry to improve the efficiency, ergonomics and safety of construction products. Richard Burt, head of the School of Building Science, calls the program “very cutting edge and collaborative.”

Ben Azzam, 21, a senior in industrial design, led a team that created a robotic floor and ceiling layout tool to mark a room’s layout on freshly poured floors and ceilings. The device uses laser measuring to connect to three secure points. It then uses these points to create an origin, which it can move to create a coordinate system. As the device moves, it paints lines on the freshly poured concrete slab to indicate where walls go, while projecting a laser on the ceiling to indicate which attachment points need to be created in the ceiling for pipes, a drop ceiling, heating, ventilation and air conditioning or anything else. It utilizes proximity sensors to make sure it doesn’t run into any obstacles and runs on a high capacity re-chargeable lithium battery.

Currently, the job is done by at least two people using tape measures, chalk lines and pens to mark their lines and points on the ground. The ceiling points are then projected by setting a laser plumb bob on the points, and using a lift to mark and drill each point. The present method is time-consuming and leaves room for error, explains Azzam, who interned with Johnson & Johnson this summer. “With the robotic floor and ceiling layout tool, it is perfect every time,” he adds. “It reduces the amount of time it takes, turning a two-person task into a single-person task.”

Project teams mix undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, manufacturers and end users — the people who will use the products on the job.

The Studio Build program has a strong relationship with Knaack, whose products include jobsite storage systems. Knaack recently was sold to Werner Co., a leader in ladders and other commercial climbing and safety equipment. Industry partners also include Leica Geosystems and Dewalt Tools, a subsidiary of Stanley Black and Decker.

Students currently are working with Knaack on new chest storage product concepts and organizational items. Two prototype tool chests have been shipped to Alabama companies to assess. “We get a lot of value collaborating with Auburn and end-users,” says Gary Peterson, Knaack’s vice president of product development. “A good deal of market insight is the result. We keep pace of changes and trends through this effort. The product concepts that are generated can create small levels of change or are sometimes transformational.”

Studio Build started in 2006, with contractors, subcontractors and end-users pointing out efficiency and safety issues that design and construction students could address. More recently, manufacturers have helped identify products that have the best chance of reaching the marketplace. The partnership with manufacturers not only provides feedback, but also helps improve prototype functionality.

“Behind government, construction is the largest industry in the world,” notes Paul Holley, one of the heads of the Studio Build program, “so it makes a lot of sense to combine industrial design and construction to provide innovative products.” 

Computer rendering of Ben Azzam team’s robotic layout tool on the job.

Yet only about 10 to 15 universities combine both industrial design and construction management, he says, and just of few of those house the two disciplines in the same academic unit as Auburn does.

Not only is construction one of the largest industries, but it’s also one of the most perilous. The U.S. Department of Labor refers to it as “high-hazard” work. Workers engage in activities that expose them to numerous risks — from falling off rooftops to muscle and joint injuries caused by repetitive tasks. In addition to tools that improve working conditions and reduce accidents, the industry also demands new products that save time and money.

The Studio Build program is structured in three phases, which follow the academic cycle. During the summer, students work in a research capacity to seek out inefficiencies and safety problems on jobsites. Students visit construction sites where they interview workers, conduct surveys and take photographs. During the fall semester, students work in the industrial design studio to develop their researched concepts into products. In the spring, students follow up on the efficacy of the prototypes, working with end-users and testing the products in an actual construction environment.

Product concepts are disclosed to the public at the end of the semester, in accordance with Auburn’s policies on technology transfer. About 80 provisional patents have been filed on products conceived by students in the program. A provisional patent provides one year of protection. After that, it is necessary to file for a non-provisional patent or abandon the patent.

“We have seven full patents pending right now on select products that have the potential to impact the industry on productivity and safety,” says Holley. Prototypes have been developed for these products and initial field-testing has been conducted. Among the products under consideration for patent is a convertible and collapsible scaffold that converts into a cart. And there’s an ergonomically designed screed grip that reduces worker fatigue and increases effectiveness when smoothing concrete, such as a sidewalk.

Collaboration takes place on many levels in the Studio Build program — academia and industry, different disciplines within the university, as well as graduate and undergraduate students in industrial design. The master’s students in Building Science’s integrated design and construction (IDC) program work with fourth-year industrial design students to help develop prototypes with market potential.

Eric Baker, 26, a graduate student in the IDC program, says exposure is key to the Studio Build experience. “Having the collaboration of the two groups really opens the minds of the students,” adds Baker, who plans on moving abroad to pursue a career in international construction.

Ph.D. students in industrial engineering have recently teamed with the Studio Build program to contribute their knowledge of ergonomics, since so many of the products have an ergonomic component. Holley says Auburn’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction over the last 10 years has made significant strides in fostering inter-disciplinary work and that the Studio Build program is a good example.

Even liberal arts disciplines can contribute to the work being done in the Studio Build program, he says.

Psychology students helped on a back-up alarm project. Unlike pedestrians who respond to the beeping because they hear it only occasionally, construction workers hear the beep continually, so they tune it out. Psychology students can apply their understanding of habituation, a decrease in response to a repeated stimulus, to find a solution.

Kinesiology students and human science students studying apparel helped develop a vest made out of fabric that would deflect radiant heat to reduce the worker’s core temperature to avoid heat stroke.

Holley provides input on every product developed in the Studio Build program. “My passion is the whole process,” he says. “That’s because I believe there are widespread deficiencies in the entire construction industry that need improving. And that’s very motivating.”

Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.

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