Who knew that changing gas meters can pose a risk for injury to workers in the utility industry? That finding was very unexpected to Dr. Naira Campbell-Kyureghyan and her engineering students from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (UWM), so much so that it pushed them to action.
They set off to create a safer work environment for technicians charged with servicing gas meters by designing a new tool to aid in the task. Together with Andy Lobo, director of product management and development at Snap-on Industrial, a division of Snap-on Inc., they engineered a new gas meter wrench.
Campbell-Kyureghyan is the founding director of UWM's Consortium for Advanced Research in Gas Industries (CARGI), an organization dedicated to improving ergonomics, safety, productivity and quality in the utility world. The consortium is composed of partner companies representing large and small business in the energy sector nationwide. One of Campbell-Kyureghyan's research priorities is finding ways to diminish work-related field injuries and fatalities.
Through their work, Campbell-Kyureghyan's student team discovered that loosening the gas meters' large fasteners, some of which have been rusted and tightly torqued for years, requires workers to use a tremendous amount of force. Conventional wrenches often slip in the process, causing a particularly high rate of injury.
"These slips of the pipe wrench from the nut are causing severe shoulder, knee, rotator cuff and torn ligament injuries," Campbell-Kyureghyan says. "Those injuries cost thousands of dollars in medical bills and lost wages."
Lobo and his colleagues have experience in helping customers solve similar issues.
"We recognized early on that Dr. Campbell-Kyureghyan's expertise in ergonomic research and Snap-on's engineering and manufacturing resources could work together to develop a unique and effective tool to reduce injuries for gas industry technicians," Lobo says.
Gas meters technicians typically carry equipment bags weighing as much as 80 pounds, which contributes to fatigue and added stress on the body. The challenge Campbell-Kyureghyan gave to her students was to develop a wrench with interchangeable heads to accommodate different fastener sizes, thereby reducing weight while also ensuring that the tool wouldn't slip.
Designing a Solution
The first prototype didn't fully achieve their goals, so they went back to the drawing board for a second try. That's when Campbell-Kyureghyan received inspiration for the wrench's design from an unlikely source.
"After going to the zoo one day, I saw an armadillo for the first time in my life, and I thought, "this is it; this is how we'll make the handle,'" she says. "We envisioned the core of the wrench being an aluminum stick with a slot in it. A sleeve would then slide over the slotted stick, which was attached to the handle. It reminded me of an armadillo. I called our new prototype a dilo handle."
With this new design, the second prototype with the dilo handle was much closer to what they envisioned. Next, Campbell-Kyureghyan asked Dr. Ben Church, a materials science and engineering professor at UWM, to lend his expertise. Together, they came up with the right mixture of materials to make the wrench lightweight, yet strong and durable enough for repeated use by gas meter technicians.
With the new prototype taking shape, students were tasked to test the wrench and see how it performed from an ergonomic standpoint, measuring the strength required and pressure placed on the user's hands during use. Those measurements were tested against traditional adjustable pipe wrenches.
"We saw up to a 40 percent reduction in muscle activity and a tremendous reduction in grip pressure, in comparison to a standard pipe wrench," Campbell-Kyureghyan says. "That was amazing."
The team also experimented with materials to reduce the weight of the tool. Campbell-Kyureghyan arranged to have CARGI partners test the wrench in the field. Their only major recommendation was to redesign the rounded handle and make it rectangular to reduce the likelihood of the technicians' hands slipping during use.
"What I saw was a tool that improves the way technicians were doing their work. It makes their lives easier and makes the job go quicker," Lobo says. "It also reduces the strain on the individual doing the work, and when you add all of those things up, it's a rather ingenuous development."
Lobo and his team took the prototype and used their understanding of tools to make further improvements to it. They redesigned the interchangeable head retention mechanism to allow a technician to operate it with just one hand, refined the end of the handle to prevent someone from applying a "cheater bar" to it, and improved a few other features.
The finished tool, called the Snap-on Gas Meter Wrench, features a 19-inch handle, made of lightweight, aviation-grade aluminum. The wrench enables users to apply greater leverage and torque without fear of the wrench slipping under extreme forces. Its design also reduces peak pressure points on the hand by 20 percent as compared with traditional wrenches and cuts muscle activity in the arm and shoulder by 20 percent and 40 percent, respectively.
The entire project, from UWM's initial research to Snap-on's production of the finished product, took about three years.
About a dozen students worked on the project in the past three years. Campbell-Kyureghyan says she hopes the students gained an understanding of all the steps involved in bringing a product idea to fruition.
"The students learned so much in the process from conception to going to market. The whole process happened in front of their eyes," she says. "When we're educating engineering students, first you identify the problem, and then you need to think of how to fix it and make sure it works. But you also need to know how to market it. This was a very rewarding project for everyone involved."
George W. Clarke is a product marketing specialist at Snap-on Industrial. The gas meter wrench was made possible through a joint effort between Dr. Naira Campbell-Kyureghyan, professor in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; and Andy Lobo, director, product management and development. Clarke can be reached at [email protected]; Lobo can be reached at [email protected].