Background — Prior Stages
Results from in-home assessments by occupational therapists showed that seniors and people with disabilities who were living alone had great difficulty with many recurrent daily living activities, including the opening of their refrigerator’s doors. Early refrigerators had latch mechanism that opened by activating handles or levers. They were replaced with a magnetic gasket that sealed the door to the frame. However, the cooling process reduces internal air pressure which creates an internal vacuum. The longer the refrigerator sits unopened, the greater the internal vacuum, and the greater the force needed to open the door. Thus, refrigerators are most difficult to open early in the morning, when people have not reached full strength or attentiveness. The scope of this project was to quantify the force required to open the door of various makes and models of refrigerators; design a prototype after-market device to effortlessly open the door; and offer a low cost version of the product to assistive technology catalog companies to prove the existence of a market for the product. The proof of existence of a market for the device would ultimately lead to licensing the device to an appliance parts manufacturer, perhaps prompt a redesign of refrigerator doors, or at least build in a mechanism to minimize the internal vacuum.
Identify Expertise Needs and Assemble Team: A team was assembled, and comprised of marketing experts, engineers/ fabricators, an occupational therapist, and student interns from marketing and engineering programs.
Identify Specific Knowledge Gap/What is the Research Question: The primary research questions included the following: How much force is needed to open a refrigerator door? Does the amount of force needed vary by make/model, or time of day? Can a non intrusive device be developed to provide a person with a mechanical advantage — use less strength — to open the refrigerator door?
Select Appropriate Research Design: Action research was selected as the most appropriate research design. Action research is a trial and error process of learning by doing. Identify a problem, and develop something to resolve the problem. See how successful the problem resolution was, and if not satisfied with the results, try a variation or different resolution.
Secure Funding: Funding from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) on Aging was secured to perform the research. Funding was also available from the same organization to apply the research results to develop a viable prototype device to address the problem.
Conduct Research/Collect and Analyze Data: Consumers with arthritis, or low strength, who were living alone had noted that they had a great deal of trouble opening their refrigerator doors, particularly in the morning. Engineering staff set to work to solve this problem by first taking pressure measurements of the magnetic seal for approximately 150 refrigerators.
Compile Results: It was discovered that it took anywhere between 6 to 26 pounds of pressure to break the magnetic seal on the refrigerator door. It takes 20% more pressure to release the seal for the first time in the morning. Given the need to pull rather than push, this level of force was deemed excessive for persons who are elderly, disabled or very young.
Conclusion: There was a need to design a device that reduced the pounds of pressure required to break the seal of the refrigerator door down to below 1 pound of force. Doing so would make the opening of a refrigerator door effortless for anyone regardless of his or her strength level.
Upon reaching Stage 7, a small initial fabrication shop production run showcased there was a limited market for the device. However, during the Gate 7 review, the team determined that the tooling, marketing and distribution costs for a formal production run were prohibitive for a product with such a small market. Therefore, no manufacturing company would undertake licensing the product and bringing it to the marketplace. However, in follow-on work with a major appliance manufacturer interested in usability and accessibility features to appliances, we noted the problem and suggested an ease of opening option. Our prototype device was forwarded to the company product designers for examination and they are considering such a feature in their next generation of refrigerators.