Jul. 5—Growing up in a family that couldn't afford to hire a mechanic every time their car broke down, Cesar Navarrete learned from an early age how to fix things. Now, his desire to fix his hand has earned the 31-year-old college student some notoriety in an invention competition.
A sophomore at Rogue Community College, Navarrete won the community college division of the Invent Oregon Collegiate Challenge, Oregon's only statewide invention competition. Navarrete's victory for his exoskeletal hand, dubbed ExoHand, marked the third time in four years that an RCC representative took home the competition's top prize.
Navarrete designed his ExoHand to help those like him who have lost some of their grip strength. The prototype he presented to the InventOr judges works by using pneumatic valves connected to a 12-volt battery and an air compressor. His ultimate goal, however, is to move the pneumatic actuators to the forearm, add more joints to allow for natural finger movement, and to lose the air compressor in favor of a more compact and practical power source.
Asked by an InventOr panel about possible upgrades during his final presentation June 25, Navarrete said it's a work in progress.
"There's a lot of things I want to change on it, but the majority is to get it more compact," he said. "The people I have talked to told me they want something they can just slide on — it's not going to obstruct their movement, it's not going to get in the way if they try to grab something. And just something that looks appealing."
Navarrete's inspiration for ExoHand was personal. For seven years starting in his early 20s he worked as a plumber on irrigation equipment in Southern California. The long days of cutting 2-inch pipe by hand took its toll.
"It's hard in the fields," he said, "and you're always holding onto stuff."
Now, gripping just about anything is a challenge for Navarrete. One day, his wife watched him struggle to open up a Gatorade bottle and asked, "What are you going to do when you're older?" Without thinking, Navarrete said, "I'll just build something to help me," which is exactly what he's done.
Navarrete used a 3-D printer to produce most of the ExoHand, which resembles a black, plastic, fingerless glove connected to four orange tubes — one for each finger. The plans for his device advanced Navarrete past the preliminary round and earned him a $500 grant to help fund the project, and he was granted another $2,500 once he advanced to the final. Navarrete's victory earned him $1,500 in prize money.
Winners were selected by an expert panel from a field of 19 teams across Oregon, and Southern Oregon was well represented. Besides RCC's win, Oregon Tech's two-person team of Hannah Wolf and Mario Segura secured the top prize ($10,000) for their solar array that looks like a tree, employing photovoltaic leaves and a vertical-axis wind turbine.
Navarrete, who started the three-month InventOr competition with fellow RCC student Landon Hunter before finishing it himself, said he plans to attend Oregon Tech after graduating with his associate's degree next spring. He'll major in mechanical engineering, a career path he discovered through a Google search.
At the time, Navarrete says, he wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life, but now there's no question about it.
"I typed in a bunch of stuff on Google to see what job title I should pursue, and mechanical engineering came in, so I applied for it, and as I was taking the classes I liked it more," he said. "I was more into it, I was more enthusiastic about taking it, and at this point I'm dead set. That's what I'm going to do."
His ExoHand project proved to be quite the time hog, but Navarrete somehow squeezed it in, along with six classes — 23 credit hours worth. He estimates each glove printing took about 13 to 21 hours. He did that four or five times. Each finger component required another three or four hours, and he can't even say how many of those he printed.
"I put in about two to three hours a day for three months," he said. "And then on the weekends, I would take my Saturdays and do a full day of just working on that."
RCC recently added a 3-D printing class, but that's not how Navarrete learned to use one. He taught himself the same way he learned how to implement the actuators and pneumatics — by watching YouTube videos.
"I had no knowledge prior to that," he said. "YouTube and the internet."
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.