Guest Post from Charles J Robinson, DSc, PE, IEEE Life Fellow, A.I.M.B.E. Founding Fellow, Professor Emeritus, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY, USA

The ReVISED project, a decade-long interdisciplinary biomedical engineering capstone project, stood out for how it employed innovative technology to improve beverage container recycling and how it involved students in an oft-ignored humanitarian need. It focused on assisting individuals with disabilities to remain employed in a supported work setting. Our partnership with local and state not-for-profit service agencies and the $8,300 in funding we received from EPICS in IEEE and other sources further underscored the uniqueness of this project. I heard about EPICS in IEEE when I was the Mohawk Valley Section Student Activities Chair. In celebration of the 15th Anniversary of EPICS in IEEE, I share this project and its unique learning outcomes to show the impact of a hands-on engineering project that improved the lives of those with disabilities.

Need for the Project

Individuals with mental or physical disability found gainful employment in supported employment work centers, but their continued employment was jeopardized by the Federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014. With few exceptions, the Act required all to be paid a minimum wage. This threatened the very survival of supported employment centers.

Supported redemption centers in our county used outdated technology to count and sort recyclable beverage containers. A single item was handled many times. This methodology became overburdened when New York additionally required plastic water bottles to be recycled. This produced a drastic increase in containers, as less than 45 percent of the total 7M/yr containers coming through local centers were now water bottles. Hence, state and local agencies (NISID and NYSARC) looked to our university for ways to streamline and optimize the collection process for efficiency, which would in turn ensure gainful employment for willing employees with disabilities. One local center had a revenue shrinkage of about $15,000 a year because of intake miscounting or count shortages on output to the vendors. 

The one-semester BR450 BmE Capstone Design course was required of all undergraduate students wishing to get a minor in Biomedical Engineering or Biomedical Science and Technology (for non-engineers). This requirement was satisfied if a traditional department’s capstone course focuses on a biomedical engineering problem. Student enrollment in BR450 was between 5 and 10 for both the fall and spring semesters, and students often volunteered or received stipends to help in the summer or next semester. The course was truly multidisciplinary, with half of the students coming from an engineering curriculum (EE, MechE and ChemE), with others from Biology, Environmental Health Sciences, and Physics. A high school senior also received full college credit for the course. 

Project Methods

The capstone students, in partnership with an undergraduate business process team, carried out flow studies in one center to determine how many times a single item was handled and how the process could be simplified. They identified the problems of a single hole intake (X2) for ALL incoming non-glass recyclables (Flow Bottleneck) and old counters (Reliability and Accuracy Issues) that had to be manually read and recorded (Accountability Issues).

In the lab, they constructed three- and five-hole prototype intake tables to investigate employing a sorting process at intake, rather than using the single intake hole that was currently employed. Both the flow and ergonomic results found the optimal intake table should have three holes: one for cans, one for water plastics, and one for other plastics. Adding a sliding trough allowed glass bottles to be counted. Design specifications were continuously revised as problems arose or new features were requested. Sorting tables with four or six holes were also designed to separate cans and water bottles by vendor. Stainless steel table tops were sloped and fed into a drainage system. All tables were constructed for ease of shipping and reassembly. The one shown below was disassembled, transported in the back of a medium-sized SUV, driven 4 hours to the New York State Capitol building in Albany, and reassembled for the lawmakers to see.

The team and the users decided to use Red Lion commercial-grade sensors and counters, the latter with unique addresses and RS485 network capabilities. While more expensive than custom-made sensors, these could be field-maintained by site staff and do not require student intervention. Sender-receiver or laser-distance-measuring sensors were situated in opposing holes in four-inch toilet flanges. Sensors could be tuned to detect clear or opaque objects, and built-in delay circuits were used to prevent double counting. Euro-style sensor disconnects allowed for easy field repair.

Each sensor was wired to a Red Lion PAXI counter in a metal-enclosed trough for the intake tables or to CUB5B counters in a sealed work box for the sorting tables. The counter for each hole faced the employee. Intake tables had an additional counter that went up by $0.05 for each item going through any hole or trough. Customers loved that option. An additional set-point card was installed on the CUB5B displays on counting tables. An indicator light for each hole turned from green to yellow and then to red as the count on that hole reached the required return number to go back to the vendor. Biology and other arts and science majors became adept at reading schematics and wiring from them. Electrical Engineering students learned human factors and woodworking. Mechanical Engineering students learned project management skills. Chemical Engineering students did well as interdisciplinary team members. To ensure uniformity, we used a jig for all table legs.

In each center, up to 40 totalizer counters could be networked via RS485 to a Red Lion G310, 10” industrial controller display that collected and displayed real-time data for each hole’s anticipated customer payout, logged the data whenever a customer’s count was finished or a sorted bag was full, printed a customer receipt or bag label by RS242, and had the data available to read in Excel format by a host computer where flow analytics could be measured.

Project Goals

The project goals were to:

  1. Update technology to prevent overpaying customers at intake and to improve the accuracy of the count when the recyclables were returned to the various vendors
  2. Make intake and sorting faster, more accurate, and easier for workers
  3. Interest students from varied backgrounds in projects needing real-world engineering expertise
  4. Introduce students to the accessibility field and the concept of supported employment
  5. Have students interact with the workers and see that, in some cases, the workers were far better at doing a job than the students could be
  6. Introduce college and high school students of varied backgrounds  to the industrial electronics’ concepts of sensing, counting, and process control with  hands-on experiences
  7. Teach the students about cost accounting and sequential manufacturing planning 
  8. Have students participate in real-world design of a large and complex process

This EPICS in IEEE project achieved the following:

  1. This community-relevant humanitarian project kept those with disabilities gainfully employed
  2. Student mindsets were changed by their interactions with those with disabilities
  3. Students acquired real-world engineering skills to balance customer needs, worker ability, cost, maintainability, and appropriate technology
  4. Students learned that engineering depends as much on art as it does on science and technology
  5. The participation of a mix of student disciplines in a collaborative effort. 75 percent of the students identify as female
  6. All students are left with the ability to read schematics, test electronics, do carpentry, and follow instructions to program equipment
  7. Students calculated materials and labor costs and developed market plans to see if a local company could be established
  8. Students found state-wide interest in the tables and the recycling system
  9. And lastly, our main customer greatly appreciated our tables and their ease of use

Unique Student Learning Outcomes

All professors aim to improve student understanding. But through this project, certain outcomes are worth mentioning:

  1. An inner-city biology student in BR450 was failing other classes and was at risk of being dismissed. She desperately wanted to have a career in occupational therapy. I convinced the special funding team to fund her fifth year so she could get a dual degree in biology and psychology. She was an outstanding worker on our project that summer and got our OT Department to accept that work as her prerequisite art project. She graduated with flying colors after her fifth year, and later from our 2.5-year OT program. She now has a great clinical job.
  2. An Environmental Sciences student working toward a biomedical engineering minor did well in BR450 and returned the next semester to help proctor the next group. She was accepted into Cornell’s very competitive  Biomedical Engineering program.
  3. All students appreciated the real-world, hands-on experience. Some were IEEE student members.
  4. Students presented this work at IEEE and other conferences. One Electrical Engineering student won an IEEE prize [Ottawa Section Student Conference, 2017] for his team constructing a portable demo unit showing the sensors, the displays, and the commercial recorder/ controller

Project Update

After our tables had been used for 8 years at multiple sites by our partner organization, COVID shut down all recycling centers, and none of ours restarted. Some, but not all of the tables, were returned to the university. Their sensors and counters might find use in an instrumentation lab. Although the project has not continued, the learning that the students experienced helped them in college and has continued with them in their careers.


The team especially thanks NYSARC staff and their wonderful employees. Thanks also to our funding agencies, especially EPICS in IEEE, and to companies who donated supplies.