Thursday, January 22, 2009

Wisconsin's Fab Lab invents adaptation that helps service dogs better open doors

From the Wrightstown Post Gazette in Appleton, Wis.:

GRAND CHUTE, Wis. — Jennifer Ulrich (pictured) pointed to a fabric strap, and with a command of "tug," a black Labrador named Wilson latched onto a handle and pulled a door open.

It was a simple motion that was never so simple before.

Ulrich, 20, of Seymour, uses a wheelchair and opening lever-style doors has always been a hassle even with the help of her service dog. A tool devised at Fox Valley Technical College will soon provide a solution.

"It was very hard," Ulrich said. "And all of a sudden there's something that can open any door."

Clients of Northeast Wisconsin Service Dogs will know the benefit of the FVTC's 2-year-old Fab Lab program. The lab developed the metal device from an idea brought in by Appleton's Jack Nigl.

The lab, one of 30 like it in the world, offered demonstrations of the tool with the help of Ulrich and Wilson on Wednesday.

Nigl, an instructor with the service dog organization, went to the lab figuring there had to be a better solution than the hooks service dogs now rely on for lever doors. Levers aren't easy for the dogs, though they're common at stores and other public places. Hooks often slip off of the handles and they don't work on every lever.

Herb Goetz, an industrial design specialist at the lab, got to work.

The lab, a concept devised at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a product fabrication laboratory, which welcomes and assists inventors in turning ideas into prototypes.

James Janisse, development manager for the FVTC lab, said it's incredibly difficult for entrepreneurs to move through the process from an idea to the marketplace. The lab's tools and experts remove barriers.

"We provide the one-stop shopping these innovators need," he said.

Nigl was impressed with the results.

The prototype looks simple enough. It's bended metal. It anchors at the barrel of the lever and extends over the handle with enough length to provide the dogs some leverage.

Goetz said the project went beyond finding a solution to the problem. It also had to be inexpensive, simple to produce and work on all types of levers.

Nigl and a service dog tested the device on a variety of storefront doors last month in downtown Appleton. "We tried a lot of doors," Nigl said, "and it worked on every one of them."

Now it's off to production.

Nigl isn't interested in bringing the tool to market. He will instead make them in his garage and distribute them to those who receive dogs.

As for equipment, he'll need something to bend metal parts that Goetz figures will cost about $100. Each will take about 10 minutes to make at a material cost of a few dollars each. Nigl will get started after receiving training.

Ulrich can't wait to have one of her own. She said it's a bit more bulky than the traditional hook and she's still thinking about where she will keep it while out and about.

Though that's a minor inconvenience.

"With what it can do to help Wilson help me, I can so deal with that," Ulrich said.