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Summer Scholar Shinn Looks to Robots to Reduce Workplace Injuries

By Jane Carter

As a human factors engineering major, Chris Shinn, E15, has always been fascinated with solving a variety of overlooked problems. For example, he and his fellow students designed an Oreo cookie de-creamer: a must-have kitchen utensil for those that prefer their Oreos sans-filling.

This summer, as a Summer Scholar grant recipient, Shinn has moved on from his Oreo-twisting to teaching robots to unscrew lids on jars and pipette fluids.“The intended application is in diagnostic laboratories to reduce repetitive motion injuries,” says Shinn. His research will explore how robots and humans can collaborate to reduce these and other musculoskeletal injuries in the workplace.

Chris Shinn, Baxter, and friends

Human Factors engineer Chris Shinn, E15, (left) stands with department chair Bill Messner (right), alumna Susan Smith Hager, E71, (center), and other mechanical engineers in Bray Lab. Smith Hager, who was a mechanical engineering major, donated funds that allowed for the purchase of tools, such as the Baxter robot. (Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)

Shinn's research is funded by a Tufts Summer Scholars grant. The program encourages rising juniors and seniors to pursue 10-week research projects in collaboration with a faculty member. Funding is provided by the Office of the Provost and other generous donors.

At the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO), Shinn has been collaborating with Professor of the Practice Daniel Hannon and Professor William Messner, and the Baxter Robot from Rethink Robotics. Baxter is designed for human interaction. It has expressive eyes and ultrasonic sensors that allow it to detect when people are nearby. Shinn says some of the robot's human-friendly features create challenges as well: “The robot has a safety feature—springs in its joints—that allow it to detect if it bumps into something, but this reduces accuracy.” As a solution, Shinn has constructed a rigid workspace for the robot to interact with, so the robot can push a jar into a track and attach a device that makes it easier to screw and unscrew a lid.

“Currently, lab techs must open and close hundreds of such jars every day. Every year thousands of man-hours are lost due to such injuries, costing employers and employees alike millions of dollars,” Shinn asserts. Industrial robots that assist car manufacturers are too expensive to be integrated into smaller business operations or laboratories, says Shinn. He said he hopes one day robots like Baxter will be commercially available to assist with tasks that would normally cause workplace-related injuries. Shinn suggests even more possibilities for the robot, including restocking shelves at grocery stores late at night when stores are closed.

Shinn is expanding his quest to help solve problems though human factors engineering. This fall, he is co-founding a new club on campus called the MAKE Team that will work with local senior homes in creating assistive devices for the elderly.

Jane Carter is Communications Assistant at Tufts University School of Engineering.

[posted September 18, 2013]