It is said that a college education gives students a chance at a “hands on” learning opportunity. But what exactly does that mean? And how does that help grow their potential for a future career?
At Camosun College in Victoria, BC, they have developed Camosun Innovates, an advanced lab combining applied research and manufacturing solutions with a sophisticated complement of technology designed to give students experience while supporting local industry.
Andrew Birch is currently an Applied Technologist at Camosun Innovates, and is a proud graduate of Camosun College’s Mechanical Engineering Technology program.
Camosun Innovates promotes a team approach to creating solutions for real-world issues. They were strategically involved in redesigning the seating used by Canada’s sledge hockey and wheelchair rugby teams.
Birch was directly involved in the sledge hockey program. He explains, “The buckets that athletes were using (and a lot of athletes still use) are made from a semi-flexible plastic. They are a classic example of a one size fits nobody solution. The analogy we like to tell people is: if we gave you a pair of skates that were two sizes too big and told you to just put an extra pair of socks on, stuff some foam in the sides and just make it work the best you can. You would not be able to skate very well, it would be uncomfortable, you would probably get blisters and your overall performance would not be optimal. This is what life is like for your average sledge hockey player with their current sleds.
We spoke extensively with players, coaches and equipment managers to determine the important aspects of the seats. From there we figured out a method to fit the athletes for their new seat. Even though their existing equipment is not ideal they do put a lot of effort into setting themselves up in the correct position. We want to capture this existing position when fitting the athletes.
To fit the athletes we created a fitting jig. It consisted of a chair like structure and a bean bag. We got them to sit in the bean bag. We then sucked all the air out of the bean bag. That allowed us to 3D scan the impression left by the athlete. From there we could create a 3D CAD model of the bucket, design mold, machine the mold, lay up the composites and make the seat. Once we make a seat there is a testing period where athletes test the equipment and we make modifications as per their needs. Sometimes this process is quick sometimes it can take some time; it is very athlete dependant.”
Birch’s education in Mechanical Engineering Technology included such courses as dynamics, machining, robotics, calculus, project management and more, setting him up for success in innovation.
In fact, Birch finds working with para sport athletes to be one of the most gratifying aspects of his career.
“I love working on something that someone else is going to use and that is going to make a big difference in their daily life. A lot of para athletes modify their existing equipment and just make do or cobble together something that will work well enough for them. It is very rewarding making something and seeing what a positive impact it makes for someone else,” he says.
“For example one project we worked on was for a Paralympic sprinter. We 3D printed him a custom starting implement for his affected arm. Previously he used an upside down flower pot. We also made a custom seating for para rowing athlete. The athlete previously used a seat made from several yoga mats all laminated together. We made him a custom carbon fibre seat.”
As a youngster, Birch was constantly building things and taking them apart to see how everything worked. His transition to Mechanical Engineering was a natural fit.
“I was a HUGE Lego kid growing up. As a result Mechanical Engineering seemed like a logical career path. While studying at Camosun I was introduced to Camosun Innovates where I became fascinated with design, prototyping and manufacturing.”
Birch is now employed at Camosun Innovates and enjoys the fact that he is constantly learning and growing in his career, looking for ways to improve and design equipment for para sport projects.
“This involves a lot of communication with the athletes, coaches and performance managers. Maintaining relationships is a critical part of my job. When you are designing equipment that someone is going to use so intimately, it is really important to have a good relationship with them so you fully understand their needs. This is particularly true for Para sport. Maintaining relationships, project/business development, project planning, design work, fabrication and equipment testing are some of the major aspects of my job,” Birch explains.
He adds, “I really enjoy the variety of projects that I get to be involved in and learning new things. At Camosun Innovates we are given a lot of personal autonomy. For example when you are given a project it become YOUR project and you are responsible for it through until the end. It is your responsibility to work with the client and the CI team to see it through to completion. Camosun Innovates is also a wonderful place to work because there is a strong focus on learning, personal growth, mentorship, and training.” You might say Birch is literally making his dreams come true.
By Jackie Fritz