By Edwin L. Aguirre
Imagine a high-tech backpack fitted with features such as a GPS tracking device, a wireless charger, an LED flashlight and a Bluetooth anti-theft locking system. Or one that is made of Kevlar and self-cleaning, flame-retardant materials. Or one that easily converts from a backpack to airline luggage.
These are just some of the ideas students came up with at the first Future Pack Design Challenge, held recently at UMass Lowell’s new Fabric Discovery Center. A total of 30 undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from colleges across the campus competed in eight teams in the two-day hackathon, which incorporated innovative technologies, designs, materials and functions into smart backpacks and luggage.
Mechanical engineering sophomores Brett Wadman, Sean Roche and Patrick Drummey and business administration sophomore Sebastian Pascal took home first prize – $4,000 in cash – with their “Pyramid Pack,” which aims to help people avoid getting injured from carrying heavy backpacks.
“The backpack industry is worth $2.7 billion in the United States, and parents buy children new backpacks every year,” said Wadman, the team leader. “Backpacks may equal 20 to 40 percent of a child’s body weight. Our goal is to help prevent or alleviate back pain. Using a combination of engineering principles and color coordination, we designed our Pyramid Pack to make users aware of the stress and strain they are putting on their backs every day.”
John Pulichino ’67, who served as one of the judges, and his wife, Joy Tong, donated $10,000 for the contest; $9,000 went to the cash prizes and the rest covered food, supplies and materials.
Pulichino is the CEO of Florida-based Group III International Ltd., a global travel goods company founded by Tong, an industrial designer who is the president and creative director. Group III operates as a distributor of luggage products, including backpacks, carry-on bags, handbags, travel kits and tote bags.
“It was a very exciting competition,” said Pulichino. “I was happy to see the students’ level of participation and their enthusiasm and the great ideas they came up with. It was a good learning experience for them. It was a good way for them to understand how to express and communicate their ideas and present them to peers. This will help them in their careers, with interviews and presenting themselves in front of people. It’s wonderful to have a great idea, but if you cannot communicate it properly, it’s not going to go anywhere.”
A Pyramid of Colors
According to Wadman, pressure sensors in the Pyramid Pack’s support straps are connected to a micro Bluetooth device that communicates to the user’s smartphone app about the load inside the backpack and how it can be adjusted and distributed. The wearer would use the color-coded inner pockets as a guide to where to place the heaviest items (dark color closest to the back and straps and light color in the pocket closest to the front of the bag).
“This pyramid of colors was the inspiration for our product’s name. From there, the strain on the user’s back can be relieved alternately through adjustment straps that distribute weight where the app says it is best supported,” he said.
The team plans to invest its prize money into developing a prototype and business plan for the product and entering it into the DifferenceMaker competition in spring.
“This product is something that we see as unique and necessary in solving a problem most people go through every day,” said Wadman.
Taking the Project to the Next Level
Pulichino has offered to fund a student project for further research and development, potentially for up to $50,000.
“If we see an idea that has real merit, and the students want to pursue it, we can continue the collaboration with our own company and take it to the next level,” he said. “Our ultimate goal is to bring the idea to the market. It may not be the actual bag that the students had created; it could be one element of a design we can incorporate. And I saw a number of ideas at the event that have real possibilities.”
Other winners of the Future Pack Design Challenge include:
- Second place ($2,000) – “Libra (Flippy),” an ergonomic backpack that improves posture and alleviates back, shoulder and neck pain. It includes a swivel feature that enables the user to shift a portion of the bag’s weight onto the front of the body. Developed by Grace Chin and Kevin Zhang (computer science), Siddhant Iyer, Shiran Yu and Zhiyu Xia (plastics engineering) and Sourabh Kulkarni (mechanical engineering).
- Third place ($1,000) – “The Vault (Skate Safe),” a backpack made of tough composite materials and laden with security features, including an internal vault to protect valuables from theft. It also has a hanger for carrying a skateboard or guitar. Created by Seamus Gallagher (mechanical engineering) and Daniel Bauman (computer science).
- Peer favorite, tie ($500) – “The Track Pack (The Perfect Pack),” a hiking backpack with safety features such as a GPS tracking system and emergency alert button in case the hiker gets lost. Developed by Salwa Alhawi (chemical engineering) and Isabella Chan (civil engineering).
- Peer favorite, tie ($500) – “Methods,” a waterproof backpack with self-cleaning fabric and safety features, including an alert button and GPS tracking app in case the bag gets lost or stolen or the child goes missing. Created by Yujie Wang (biomedical engineering and biotechnology), Sydney San (computer science), Cathy Tran (art) and Kristy Louie (business administration).
- Honorable mention, tie ($500) – “The Odyssey Rucksack,” a backpack that balances technology, utility and fashion and features GPS and Bluetooth anti-theft devices; fiber organic LEDs woven into the fabric; an LED flashlight inside for finding items; and a hidden interior, nonprotruding pocket for water bottles. Developed by Connor Arsenault (business administration), Rashmi Sharma (polymer science), Vibishan Wigneswaran (computer science) and Simon Wang (math).
- Honorable mention, tie ($500) – “La Valise à Dos (The Suitcase Backpack),” a lightweight backpack that expands and converts into a travel suitcase. It also has a phone charger, detachable/hidden wheels and a Kevlar handle. Created by Shaine Arquillano (liberal arts) and Crystal Abimoussa (computer science).
In addition to Pulichino, the other judges were Tosha Hays of the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), Prof. Jayant Kumar of the Center for Advanced Materials, Claire Lepont of the Fabric Discovery Center and Chriztine Foltz of Ztine Designs.