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Students Solve Littleton Manufacturer's Dilemma

WBJ photo

By Matt Pilon

When higher education and manufacturers collide, innovation can result.

That's what happened when WaveMark Inc., a Littleton company that makes RFID-based supply chain products, worked with engineering students from UMass Lowell to solve a challenge with one of its products.

WaveMark, which has 35 employees in Littleton and 25 software employees in Beirut, Lebanon, makes smart cabinets for hospitals, including UMass Medical Center in Worcester. The cabinets store medical devices such as catheters. A built-in scanning system keeps track of the inventory inside through the use of RFID tags attached to each.

One type of cabinet the company builds is for long catheters, which hang from a rack at the top of the cabinet. The RFID tags, attached to the top of the medical devices, were getting in the way of fitting more into the cabinet, explained Richard Leitermann, senior director of hardware engineering and manufacturing.

"Hospitals were complaining that they can't fit enough product into our cabinets," Leitermann said.

So WaveMark turned to a team of engineering students at UMass Lowell to explore the problem. The students worked on it for two semesters in a so-called capstone course.

Doubts At First

Leitermann admits he was not sure a good solution would result. His own engineers had struggled with the problem.

But the students proved to be more than capable, figuring out a way to make the tags smaller and "nest" them, meaning they fit into each other, which allowed for more product to hang from the rack.

"Almost like spoons in a drawer," Leitermann said.

And the new design did not sacrifice the readability of the tags, which would have been a deal-breaker, he added.

"It shocked us in terms of this was different from anything we had tried," he said. "Maybe we were too close to the problem."

WaveMark made a mold for the new design and is doing further tests on it. Production could start in July. A Braintree-based company that provides jobs for people with disabilities will make the product.

Leitermann said WaveMark has worked with students from several UMass campuses and plans to continue doing so, especially after the recent collaboration. And he hopes other companies will too.

"I think there are other opportunities for companies to consider getting involved with state schools," he said. "They have a lot more to offer than people might think."