When Copley High School first partnered with Weaver Industries in 2014, the two set out to create a more efficient way to assemble a product processed at the Akron-based nonprofit.
Four years, five inventions and a few thousand dollars in profits later, the partnership has brought efficiency, productivity and safety to Weaver's 210 employees who have physical or mental disabilities. And it's been done all at the hands of students.
"The students are just, they're amazing. They're really bright kids and they're fun. They think out of the box and come up with some really amazing pieces of equipment for us that have helped us tremendously," said Joe Buit, a general manager at Weaver. "Each year it gets better."
Weaver Industries is a nonprofit organization that provides vocational training and employment opportunities to people with disabilities. For the past four years, students in engineering classes at Copley have met with Weaver employees to figure out how to improve their technology and workflow. Students have created machines over the years that have increased productivity in Weaver's processing division.
Weaver became connected with Copley High School through the SourceAmerica Design Challenge, a national engineering competition where students create innovative workplace technologies for people with disabilities.
A Copley team once again took an invention for Weaver to the national SourceAmerica competition in Washington, D.C. the week of April 9-11. The invention is a simple mechanical solution to removing plastic wrap from stacks of paper. The Copley students were one of five teams selected for the national competition among 120 applicants.
This year's team is unique from past years – all four members are girls.
"We didn't all have the skill set to do it ..." 16-year-old Courtney Phillips started to say.
"But we had the motivation," offered teammate Nina White, also 16.
The Copley teams have fared well in the past national competitions. They came in first the first year, and have placed every year since then, sometimes with multiple teams.
But even more fulfilling for the teams and their coach, Kirby Harder, is the fact that they're making a tangible impact in the workplace.
"It's great to make a difference in our community," said Harder, who is an engineering teacher at Copley. "That's what it's all about: helping these folks work."
All but one of the five inventions the Copley teams have come up with over the years are currently being used in Weaver – one was retired after breaking, Harder said.
Weaver has four main services: cleaning, landscaping, production and shredding of confidential documents. The students' inventions have mainly focused on streamlining and improving the safety of processes in the production and shredding departments.
Harder said one of the machines has processed "well over two million parts," and another is nearing one million.
This year, students were tasked with coming up with a better way to remove the plastic wrap off of stacks of expired lottery tickets before they're put into the shredder. The current way consists of an employee whacking the stack against the sharp end of an exposed screw to rip through the plastic, which takes about eight seconds on average, according to the girls.
The team worked with a Weaver employee, 37-year-old Sarah Snider, who gave the girls feedback as they developed and built three prototypes, taking them back each time for Snider to test out.
Their final prototype is two pieces of oak wood with blades in the middle to push the stack of lottery tickets through and easily slice the plastic. A piece of plexiglass covers the top so the blades aren't exposed.
In the short time she's used it, Snider said it's already made a difference.
Her average time to tear the plastic off went from eight seconds to two. And when she was given a new shipment of lottery tickets that were projected to take three weeks to process, she finished them in one week.
"I wasn't sure if I liked it or not, but the more I used it, the more I liked it and the faster I got," Snider said. "It'll take us no time to go through them. It seemed like it took forever for the old way."
Snider, Nina, Courtney and their teammates Lexy Gingras and Alison Jones, will vie for the top spot, at the national competition which comes with monetary prizes. No matter how they place, Weaver will automatically earn $1,000. First place prizes include $6,000 for the school and $8,000 for the kids to divide amongst themselves.
Although the "build this year is not as technical as in past," Harden said, it's still helped cut work time by more than half while making it safer.
"Sometimes simple is the way to go," he said.