At University of Wisconsin-Stout this fall, dozens of COVID-19 safety measures — from new plexiglass barriers to surface disinfection protocols to socially-distanced classrooms and lounges — have been planned and implemented to help keep everyone healthy.

The university’s commitment also includes something out of the ordinary, a narrow, molded plastic tool distributed in welcome packs to residence hall students. Simple as it looks, it has a sort of superpower.

The device is a hand-held door puller, designed to hook handles and open doors in classroom buildings, residence halls and more, meaning that students can use it to greatly reduce the number of times each day that they touch commonly used surfaces.

For this small but powerful — even lifesaving — piece of engineering, new students can largely credit two of their peers, fellow students Jake Thomas and Deven McCarty.

“I’m happy I can make a difference, put my engineering knowledge to use and make students’ lives a little better,” said Thomas, the inventor, a senior engineering technology major from Northfield.

Thomas made a door puller early this summer at home on a 3D printer. It came at the request of his father, who works in technology for a Minnesota school district. Once word got out at UW-Stout, where Thomas works as an admissions tour guide, the idea took off.

Soon, there will be 3,000 of Thomas’ door pullers on campus.

“It’s wild that this all started in my bedroom,” he said.

Along with student know-how, the project benefited from several of the plastics engineering program’s industry partners:

• NatureWorks donated 1,400 pounds of raw plastics material.

• The RTP Company provided laser etching additive.

• A Milacron injection molding machine, which is free on consignment to the lab, produced the devices.

• A donation from EVCO Plastics to Stout University Foundation made it possible to purchase a Datalogic laser engraver at a significant discount. EVCO is owned by UW-Stout alumnus Dale Evans.

The door puller includes the “Made at UW-Stout” logo, a campuswide initiative to highlight unique products designed, prototyped and produced on campus as part of the applied learning focus. The puller also includes a QR code that links to a webpage to learn more about the project.

Watch a video about how the project began.

Two skillsets coming together

It all started with a question by Jake Thomas’ father, John, who opens a lot of doors with his school district technology job.

“Touching and wiping down doors takes a lot of time. I asked Jake about making some kind of puller I could put on a lanyard. He seeks out things to design and fabricate,” John said. “We talked about it on a Saturday afternoon. He had a design within a few hours and had one 3D printed by Sunday night.”

Jake had saved up for his first 3D printer about seven years ago in middle school and subsequently turned his closet into a workbench. He was co-captain of his Northfield High School FIRST robotics team.

“We have a silly expression in our house: You have to use your ‘superpowers’ for good. I love that he’s taking his skills and helping others,” John said.

Jake researched the idea online and developed his prototype, which his dad still uses but which is more than twice as thick as the finished “Made at UW-Stout” model. The final product is 4.9 inches long, 2.23 inches high and one-quarter inch thick, weighing less than 1 ounce.

In between that first model and the finished one, Jake refined his idea and made about 20 of them for admissions staff at UW-Stout. He used knowledge from classes such as impacts of engineering and engineering graphics applications to research, design and test his idea, including how many pounds of force are needed to open a typical campus door.

Word of his idea began to spread across campus. When the decision was made to make the door pullers as a welcome gift for new students, Jake saw the project take on a whole new life with cost analysis, the “Made at UW-Stout” aspect, mold-making and a production schedule, all of which put him in contact with faculty and administrators, including making a pitch to Chancellor Katherine P. Frank.

Jake and his new project partner, McCarty, oversaw the production process, and they learned from each other’s engineering skillsets.

McCarty’s redesign of Jake’s prototype, to meet production specifications, included using modeling software, 3D printing, hundreds of color tests for laser etching and, finally, machine programming, setup and production of the door pullers in the lab.

The aluminum mold based on McCarty’s work was milled in UW-Stout’s machine shop in Fryklund Hall by Paul Craig, manufacturing engineering instructor.

Both students said the project essentially took the place of their summer internships, which were canceled because of COVID-19.

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