Extraordinary Candles (North Carolina)

Cassie Meeker, Lindsay Sullivan, Matthew Schneider, Joseph Shim


Our client, Bob, is a man living with autism spectrum disorder. Autism is a broad term used to describe a neurological development disorder characterized by poor communication skills and repetitive behavior. Bob displays several symptoms characteristic of high functioning autism, including a short attention span and difficulties with fine motor skills.

Bob is employed as a candle maker at Extraordinary Ventures in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His current method to create these candles requires assistance from his job coach because he is easily distracted and produces candles that do not meet specifications. Our goal was to help the client make quality candles with a high rate of success.

We created a set of devices that allows our client to make candles independently, and improves the consistency and quality of the candles. These consist of four different devices, each of which addresses a certain need identified in the needs assessment. The first device allows the client to consistently put the same volume of wax in each candle holder.  The second device makes the process safer by protecting the client from splashing wax with a barrier.  The third device fits the candle holder and allows the client to put the wicks in the correct location.  The final device then helps the client fix the wicks in the correct position, using visual cues and clips.  These devices maintain the simplicity of the current process, but also solve the major problems and safety concerns of the old process.


Our client, Bob, is a man living with autism spectrum disorder. Autism is a broad term used to describe a neurological development disorder characterized by poor communication skills and repetitive behavior (1). Researchers have not yet identified the exact cause of autism, but suggest that both genetic and environmental factors are responsible (2). In addition to social impairments, people with autism may struggle with fine motor tasks and respond to sensory stimuli in unusual ways (3).  Bob is high functioning, able to complete tasks and follow directions.  However, he has a short attention span and trouble with fine motor skills.

Bob is employed at Extraordinary Ventures in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This is a non-profit organization which seeks to employ young adults with developmental disabilities.  It consists of self-sustaining businesses, like EV Gifts, the candle making branch of Extraordinary Ventures.

Bob is employed as a candle maker at EV Gifts. The candles produced by the employees are square in shape and occupy a glass container.  Each candle is scented and has two wicks (see Figure 1). Bob currently has a method to create these candles but requires assistance from his job coach because he is easily distracted.

This is a picture of a finished candle made at Extraordinary Ventures. The candle holder is clear and in the shape of a cube. There are two wicks equally spaced in the center of the candle.

Figure 1-Finished Candle Product


The candle making process consists of four steps and each one presents challenges to Bob:

  1. Scoop one cupful of wax flakes to be heated; this is the precise amount needed to make one candle with the desired wax height. Bob pays little attention to whether the wax falls slightly above or below the cup line.  This can result in inconsistencies in wax height between the candles.
  2. Stir the scent into heated wax.  The boiling wax splashes and, as a result, Bob stops doing this task without thoroughly stirring in the scent.
  3. Tape the wicks to the bottom of the candle holder. It is difficult for Bob to place the wicks in the correct locations.
  4. Hold the wicks vertically while the wax cools and hardens, so that they go straight up through the wax.  Straight wicks are essential so that the candles burn evenly and look symmetrical.  If it is not done correctly, the candles have to be thrown away.  The current method involves using clothespins balanced on the edge of the container.  Because of Bob’s limitations in fine motor skills, this method is not precise and can lead to crooked wicks.

Therefore, Bob needs a method to consistently produce high quality candles.


Since Bob lives with autism spectrum disorder, solutions to his workplace needs must be simple enough that he can use them autonomously.  There are no current methods commercially available to help with this problem.

Bob does have a functional process by which he can make candles.  However, none of the existing devices are accurate, due to reasons found above in the “Statement of Problem” section.  As a result, Bob requires constant supervision during the candle making process to ensure that he makes candles that meet the required specifications.  In addition, most of the devices are currently falling apart, and Bob’s job coach estimates that they have to be replaced every few months.

Currently, Bob uses a plastic cup to measure the amount of wax flakes needed for a single candle.  He has no existing safety measure for when he stirs the scent into the wax.  To determine the correct wick placement on the bottom of the candleholder, Bob places the candleholder on a template made of a Tupperware lid with black circles drawn on the bottom.  Bob holds the wicks upright by clothespins balanced on the edge of the glass container.  His current process is not accurate, durable, or elegant.


The goal of EV Gifts is to provide young adults with developmental disorders with an opportunity to work independently and earn wages.  Bob’s current method of making candles limits his independence because he still needs assistance from his job coach.  Bob’s current process is slow and he makes frequent mistakes.  Our goal is to increase Bob’s efficiency and to give him more independence.  Bob is paid based on the number of candles he produces, so if we develop a more efficient process which enables him to consistently make high quality candles, his income will increase. Furthermore, his workplace safety is compromised due to the presence of boiling wax.  We created a process to give Bob autonomy and to protect him because all individuals deserve these things in the workplace.


After receiving this problem, first we sat down with the clients to discuss their expectations in depth.  We identified the various issues in Bob’s candle making process by talking to his employers and his job coach and then by observing Bob. We prioritized the problems and found the four most pressing.  These problems are the ones we addressed in our final design.  We then created a statement of project goals.  The goals described what we would fix and the general needs for our devices (reproducible, portable, durable and safe).  Next, we brainstormed ideas and created schematic drawings of our process.  We created prototypes of our design using cardboard and duct tape.  We tested the cardboard prototypes to ensure they functioned as intended.  Then we began testing appropriate material for our devices.  We built prototypes using the intended material and tested those prototypes.  After several design adjustments to account for the results of our tests, we built the final devices.


The improvements we made on the candle-making process consist of four different devices, each addressing a different need.  The devices are: a dispenser, a lid, a base template, and a wick holder. Each part will be used at separate times during the candle making process. The dispenser fills a cup with wax flakes.  When you slide the cup out to retrieve the wax, the wax is automatically leveled and the volume in the cup is standardized. The lid covers the pitcher of wax as it’s melting to prevent the wax from splashing up. The base template shows our client where to tape the wicks in the glass container before he pours in the wax. The wick holder is attached to the side of the glass container and when clipped onto the wicks, holds them straight up while the wax cools and solidifies overnight.


  1. i.                    Wax Dispenser

The dispenser is made of two parts, the hopper and the container. The hopper is a large aluminum funnel that the user fills with wax flakes. Flush with the bottom of the funnel is a sliding drawer with an encapsulated cup.  The cup is the appropriate size to hold enough wax flakes to make one candle.  When the drawer is pushed in, the cup is directly under the funnel and the wax will then fall through the funnel until the cup is full. Then, the user pulls out the sliding drawer and cup. As the mechanism slides out, the bottom of the funnel is closed off by the sliding drawer, so no more wax comes out (Figure 2). The user can then remove the cup to pour out the wax flakes into a pot to start the heating process. The dispenser enables our client to use the appropriate amount of wax for each candle.


The wax dispensing device is shown here. There are three pieces of acrylic screwed together and solvented to an acrylic base to form an open box-like structure. An aluminum funnel sits on the top of the acrylic box. Directly beneath the funnel, there is a piece of acrylic attached to drawer slides. This allows the acrylic sheet to be slid in and out of the box. There is a hole in the acrylic sheet that is the same diameter as the PVC cup. The PVC cup can be put into the hole and held in place by an acrylic cradle. When the drawer is slid in, wax dispense through the funnel into the cup. When the drawer is slid back out, the cup is leveled and can be removed for use.

Figure 2-Wax dispenser shown with drawer slid out and cup inserted


  1. ii.                  Stirring Lid

The major function of the protective lid/stirring device is to prevent our client from being splashed by hot wax while he stirs the scent into the hot wax.  The lid covers the pitcher that contains melting wax.  It is made of one piece of acrylic cut into a circle, with flaps extending from the main circle.  The flaps are bent to fit over the edges of the container where the wax is melted to hold the lid in place.  The acrylic is covered in silicone, which insulates the lid from heat (Figure 3).There is a hole in the top of the lid where the stirring device can be placed and easily maneuvered. In addition, a small square of acrylic on top of the lid is attached to a hinge, so that it can be opened and closed. The client opens this maneuverable flap to pour in scents or measure the temperature.

This is a picture of the stirring lid. The lid is a circular piece of acrylic with rectangular flaps on four sides to hold the device on the heating kettle. The entire lid is covered in silicone to provide insulation and protect our client from potential burns. There is a hole in the center of the lid to allow for a stirring device to be placed inside the heating kettle. In addition, there is a hinged flap that can be opened and closed to allow for pouring and temperature measurements.

Figure 3-Stirring lid shown on top of heating kettle and with stirring device inserted


  1. iii.                Base plate

The base plate serves as a template to guide our client in properly taping the bottom of the candle wicks to the bottom of the glass candle holder. The top piece of acrylic has a square cutout that equal to the size as the candle holder, so that the client can accurately place the candle holder onto the template every time (Figure 4). On the bottom piece of acrylic, there are two circles engraved at an equal distance from diagonal corners. The client places the wicks directly on top of the marked circles and then tapes the wicks in place. Once the wicks are in place, the candle holder can be removed from the base plate.

The baseplate template is shown in this figure. The template is made out of two pieces of acrylic. The top acrylic piece has a cutout that is the exact size of the candle holder base. There are two engraved circles centered and equally spaced in the cutout portion to serve as a guide for taping the wicks.

Figure 4-Base template


  1. iv.                 Wickholder

The wick straightening device allows each candle wick to remain vertical while the wax is cooling and solidifying. The device mounts to the rim of the candle holder on two sides. Directly above the wicks, there are clips attached to an acrylic “u” shape (Figure 5). After the client pours the wax into the holder, he attaches each wick to the appropriate clip and leaves the candle to cool and harden overnight.  We made twenty-one of these devices because Bob makes the candles in batches of, on average, 16 candles, and the wicks need to be held in place overnight while they cool.  We wanted to ensure he would have enough wickholding devices to fulfill the candle orders he receives.

This is a picture of the wickholder. The structure resembles a croquet wicket that rests on the top edges of the candle holder. There are two clips attached to the top of the wicholder device to hold the wicks in place as they dry.

Figure 5-Wickholder shown in use, holding wicks completely vertical




  1. i.                    Cost Analysis

Throughout the entire design process, our group spent $328.51 on materials. This value includes prototyping and other previous designs. The full break down of the cost can be seen below in Table 1. If these devices were to be reproduced, the unit costs would be much cheaper. The total unit cost for the wickholder device is $3.73. This cost includes the acrylic, clips, screws and hex nuts. The acrylic base plate costs $3.13 to make. Including the insulating layer, acrylic and hinge, the stirring lid total cost is $16.99. The most expensive device is the wax dispenser, which costs $75.85 per unit. The wax dispenser is made up of acrylic, drawer slides, screws, nuts, PVC and an aluminum funnel.

This figure displays the budget for our project. In total, our group spent $328.51 total, including prototyping supplies. The actual cost per device is much less as described in the paper.

Table 1- Budget for entire project


  1. ii.                  Testing Procedure and Results

Using his old process, Bob was able to make one candle in 15 minutes.  Using our new devices, our group was able to make one candle in 10 minutes.  Although Bob has tested our device, his autism makes him resistant to change.  He has not fully adjusted to using our devices, so his efficiency is about the same with both processes.  With time, Bob will become accustomed to our process and will make candles in about the same time as our group members were able to.

However, the main problem expressed to us by Bob’s employers was the need for him to become independent in the workplace.  Although less quantifiable, we judged our success primarily on this qualification.  With our device, Bob can now measure out the correct amount of wax to be put in each candle with 100% accuracy, so his job coach no longer has to monitor him closely on this step to ensure he is accurate.  Because he feels protected around the boiling wax by the stirring lid, Bob’s job coach no longer has to nag him to stir the scent into the wax.  Because Bob has two devices which allow him to accurately place and hold the wicks, all of his candles are of high quality, so Bob’s job coach does not have to look through the candles and determine which ones must be thrown away and which can be kept.  One of Bob’s supervisors at Extraordinary Ventures stated that “once Bob is fully trained on using the device, he will be self-sufficient in the workplace”.  While these results are less quantifiable than the amount of time it takes Bob to make a candle, independence in the workplace was the goal of this project.  Feedback from Bob’s supervisors at Extraordinary Ventures indicates that we accomplished this.


Our devices will allow Bob to be safer and more autonomous in his workplace.  Since he will be making high quality candles consistently, fewer bad candles will be thrown away and more candles can be sold.  The objective of the non-profit company at which Bob is employed is to be self-sustaining, and if they sell more candles, they can achieve this goal.  The non-profit is already planning to expand to other locations in the future.  If they can demonstrate a sustainable business model, they are more likely to be able to expand.  If the company expands to new locations or grows its business, the venture can employ more young adults with developmental disabilities.  These young adults will gain experience in the workplace and earn their own wage.

We found this process to be extremely rewarding.  Extraordinary Ventures creates an environment in which young adults with developmental disabilities gain experience in the workplace.  We helped Bob become self-sustaining in the workplace and as the company expands, our devices will help employees who join Bob in the candle making business.  Our device keeps the simplicity of the current process so that workers with developmental disabilities can use them easily, but also solves the major problems and safety concerns of the old process.


[1] “What Is Autism? What Causes Autism?” Medical News Today. MediLexicon International, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2013. <http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/info/autism/>.

[2]”What Is Autism?” Autism Speaks. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2013. <http://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism>.

[3] Davis, Ronald. “Autism Characteristics.” List of Autism Characteristics. Rocky Point Academy, n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2013. <http://calgaryautism.com/characteristics.htm>.


We would like to thank Dr. Richard Goldberg, Extraordinary Ventures, Van Hatchell, Paige Morrow, Steve Emanuel, Devin Hubbard, and the UNC Department of Biomedical Engineering for their guidance and cooperation during this process.  We would also like to thank the National Science Foundation grant # CBET 0966571 for their financial support.


Cassie Meeker; meeker.cassie@gmail.com; (703) 867-2414

8653 Black Forest Circle, Fairfax, VA 22031


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