Students driven to maximize product potential at CWRU competition

Amanda Noonan learned quite a bit about what is possible in the product development space through her participation in the Saint-Gobain Student Design Competition, held annually in partnership with Case Western Reserve University.

Noonan and her teammates on the PulseOx team won the competition by creating a device to obtain reliable blood-oxygen level measurements of infants. The idea was inspired by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, one of which seeks to end preventable deaths of newborns and children under the age of 5 by 2030.

As they got to work on the project, Noonan set a high standard for herself and her team.

“I’ve worked for a few different companies,” says Noonan, a senior electrical engineering major at Case with a minor in biomedical engineering. “A lot of the products I’ve seen weren’t as well-engineered. They serve a purpose and they have functionality, but there were things that could have been highly improved with a little more thought and care. We tried to put that thought and care into our work so our device does what it needs to do and does it in the best way possible.”

Profit not a priority
The PulseOx team’s redesigned approach reduces vulnerabilities that are common to existing technologies. The new product is intended to be reusable, unlike many other low-cost devices currently deployed in resource-constrained health facilities.

“It creates a solution to help improve care in a low-resource health care setting where there is not access to electricity or to a regular supply of health resources,” Noonan says. “The current model used in pediatric-pulse oximetry, it requires all those things.”

Pulse oximetry is a way to measure how much oxygen a person’s blood is carrying, according to the American Thoracic Society. When a person’s oxygen level is low, the body’s cells can have a hard time working properly. For newborns and young children, an accurate read on blood oxygen levels can be critical to providing the appropriate medical care.

As they continued working on their creation, Noonan says she and her teammates realized that their project could help people everywhere, not just in low-income countries and communities.

“We just wanted to bring a higher quality of engineering to the device and do more than just try to make something that was going to work,” Noonan says. “It wasn’t until we got into the competition that we saw the marketability.”

Thomas Thornton is a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art and brought a designer’s perspective to PulseOx. Teams that compete in the Saint-Gobain competition often mesh such expertise with scientific points of view to develop a better product.

“This has helped us learn to work as a team and get real-world experience as industrial designers working alongside engineers and anthropologists and other people in different specialties,” Thornton says. “It’s something you really don’t get the opportunity to do in school.”

A potential business opportunity
Dave Stresing and Doug Heneghan both work at Saint-Gobain and have been part of the design competition at Case for a number of years as both advisers and mentors. Stresing emphasizes the word “adviser” when describing his participation in the project.

“Saint Gobain makes no claim of ownership on anything these kids come up with,” says Stresing, technical manager at Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics. “It’s their idea and they run with it. If there are questions along the way, they can talk to us if they need to. But it’s their own projects and their own ideas. Many of these teams see these projects as potential business opportunities to become innovators themselves.”

Heneghan, sales manager for North America and Asia at Saint-Gobain NorPro, says the competition requires a strong commitment of time and energy.

“They are doing this on their free time,” Heneghan says. “There is no credit, no guarantee of payment. It’s totally outside their other activities and can create a strain on their time, which tends to snowball as the project nears completion. You have to give them credit for that. We are seeing highly motivated, highly intelligent and highly capable students at a close visibility point.”

The opportunity to be part of the competition at Case has provided Ashley Djuhadi with a glimpse into the kind of work she hopes to do in her career.

“I’m a sophomore engineering student at Case,” Djuhadi says. “I would not have had the opportunity to have any design experience until most likely my junior year. So joining this project really gave me a hands-on opportunity to learn the design process and start to look at my own ideas as well as collaborate with others.”
The opportunity to collaborate with others, including the team at Saint-Gobain, and use that expertise to make an even better product, was invaluable experience, Thornton says.

“We worked with a partner school in Uganda and had students go out there and come back with a lot of great research regarding how our product worked and feedback as to what we could change, which helped a lot,” Thornton says. “We also got a pretty big vote of confidence knowing that Saint-Gobain sees this as something that could really help people and save lives, which is our goal.”

How to reach: Case Western Reserve University, (216) 368-2000 or case.edu; Saint-Gobain, (610) 893-6000 or www.saint-gobain-northamerica.com.