CAMAS — Team Mean Machine’s laboratory is that of a mad scientist. The tireless whir of a dozen 3D printers and other machines working away alongside a team of genius engineers ensures there’s never a moment of complete silence — almost like the room itself is alive.
Outside the miniature factory, however, these geniuses lead relatively normal lives — as middle and high school students.
The laboratory in question is better known as Discovery High School’s project-based learning center. With the help of teachers and mentors, the students that make up Team Mean Machine design robots and devices to pique their own interests and compete in regional, national and even international competitions.
The device they’ve been developing lately — the Power Pivot — aims to improve the lives of those living with mobility limitations or physical disabilities.
The Power Pivot is a portable motorized disk designed to assist caregivers in transferring persons between wheelchairs, seats, beds and vehicles. The device uses a small remote with just two buttons — clockwise or counter-clockwise rotation — so users can safely rotate themselves without needing to apply any torque or force that can be painful or difficult for those with hip injuries or other mobility limitations.
Weighing just five pounds, the disk can be easily carried while still being capable of safely supporting 300 pounds at as many as 22 rotations. The disks are made-to-order, so they’re custom designed to the specific size and specifications of their customers.
Team mentor Bruce Whitefield, a career and technical instructor at Discovery High School who has served as the team’s mentor since 2008, said the idea for the disk came about when a neighbor of his came to him with a similar, cheaply made device they had been using in their home.
“So I brought in this cheap disk to school and asked my robotics team, ‘can you make this?,’ ” Whitefield said while slapping the flimsy plastic device onto a nearby table. Since that moment months ago, the team has gone through almost a dozen iterations of their first disk.
Students quickly identified what they called a “large market gap” for the product; many similar disks existed in hospitals but were stationary and expensive to produce. On the other hand, flimsy inexpensive devices existed for at-home use, but were ineffective and hard to use.
Odyssey Middle School student Taryn Cavill said Model 6.2, their latest Power Pivot, is intended to be big enough to fit larger feet while featuring a circumference that can still fit within the floor space of the average walker.
Right now, each Pivot costs about $80 to make and are being sold for $160. Any and all profits go to the school’s various STEM and robotics programs. The students’ goal is to lower the margin of production costs enough so that they can give them away for free.
“This product is intended for the at-home caregiver,” Whitefield said.
Discovery sophomore Jack Harding demonstrated how the motor’s housing, a black box snugly fixed on the corner of the disk, was individually printed so that it could fit all of the pieces of the motor in a small space.
Each housing takes about 12 hours to print, Harding said. He and teammate Silvia Pujol showed off a side room in the lab where a half-dozen of the 3D printers were busily creating parts. Small LCD screens on the printers’ bases showed just how much time was left on each project. In total, each disk takes about a week or so to create.
Haley Crowell, a student at Odyssey Middle School, used vinyl cutters to create stickers, labels, and smaller aspects of the machines with Adobe Illustrator.
“It’s a whole lot of trial and error,” said Will Jolley, a junior at Discovery. Jolley said he refers to himself as none other than “The Legend.”
Team Mean Machine competes in the annual FIRST Robotics Competition — an international competition that features over 3,000 teams. This year, the team — made up of students from Camas, Hockinson and Washougal — was challenged to create a design in the category of health and fitness.
The innovation challenge began in January, and production started in April.
As the COVID-19 pandemic limited the team’s ability to work in person, students used a web-based collaborative software called OnShape, which allows them to work simultaneously from remote locations without having to download any additional software. Harding said it was easy to use, like Google Docs, and the convenience allowed the team to work efficiently.
“The gift of the innovation challenge was it shows us just how we can create things that benefit our community,” Jolley said.
The team has since filed for a patent — a painstaking process that the team says isn’t quite as fun as the other aspects of their production.
“It’s a lot of writing,” Cavill said, laughing.
“We had to find everything we could that this has that other ones don’t have so that people don’t copy ours. Because the amazing thing about this project is that it really fills a niche that feels unfilled,” Jolley said.
Team Mean Machine went on to finish as a semifinalist in the international competition.
The robotics class is also working on a project called the Reach Challenge on Dec. 17 — a similar competition that uses a video submission and details about the Pivot to show how the product can use engineering to positively benefit someone’s life.
Making a difference
As of today, the team has created eight or so disks, but they don’t want to create any more than 100. Mentor Brian Cavill, who is also father to team members Taryn and Brenden Cavill, has helped to use his previous connections in working with PeaceHealth and as a firefighter medic to identify uses and potential clients who could benefit from the Pivot.
“This product would have been perfect for a number of situations I saw,” Brian Cavill said. “But being in a hospital, I realized it’s not exactly the best use there. So we’ve been more of a guide to help show students, ‘here’s who might need them the most.’ ”
In addition to the pride of repeatedly perfecting their product, the students said it’s especially pleasing to see people get legitimate practical use out of the Power Pivot.
“It’s really great, even as just a student, to see how you can use your own skills to make a difference in someone else’s life,” Harding said.
With the mentors, the team has worked to continue identifying individual customers, other locations like elderly care facilities and companies that might want to buy the rights to the design.
That step forward would allow the students to spend more time working on more complex robotics projects that they love to spend time on, too.
Their next goal, Whitefield said, is to create something that utilizes a specific type of gear that the team had to custom-design for the Pivot. Since they buy materials in bulk, Whitefield joked that they’ve now got a thousand of this unique gear that’s got to be put to use somehow.
Until then, the mad student scientists in Camas will continue to make Pivots for people in the community who need them most.
“The Power Pivot project has been an amazing opportunity for team members to come forward to learn and use their skills while creating something that can really help a lot of people,” said Zach Ager, a senior at Washougal High and the vice president of the team.