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United States Patent Application 20020109446
Kind Code A1
Arnold, L. Taylor August 15, 2002

Retractable step assembly and method of operation

Abstract

A system and method for providing a stepping platform in front of a cabinet structure, so that a person can better reach above the cabinet structure. The system includes a motorized platform that is retracted into the base support below the cabinet structure. When a person needs the platform, that person engages an activation switch. Once the activation switch is depressed, an electric motor drives the platform forward in front of the cabinet structure. Once fully extended, the platform can be stood upon, thereby adding between three inches and six inches of height to the person. When the platform is no longer needed, the activation switch is again engaged. The electric motor retracts the platform back into the base support below the cabinet structure.


Inventors: Arnold, L. Taylor; (Raleigh, NC)
Correspondence Address:
    LaMORTE & ASSOCIATES, P.C.
    P.O. BOX 434
    Yardley
    PA
    19067-8434
    US
Serial No.: 781015
Series Code: 09
Filed: February 12, 2001

Current U.S. Class: 312/319.5; 312/278
Class at Publication: 312/319.5; 312/278
International Class: A47B 088/00


Claims



What is claimed is:

1. In a cabinet structure having a storage area and a recessed base positioned below the storage area, a system comprising: a stepping platform; a motor for selectively moving said stepping platform between a retracted position and an extended position, wherein when in said retracted position, said stepping platform is contained within the recessed base of the cabinet structure, and when in said extended position, said stepping platform extends from the recessed base; and an activation switch for selectively operating said motor.

2. The system according to claim 1, further including a drive mechanism coupled to said motor and said stepping platform, wherein said drive mechanism converts rotational movement produced by said motor into lateral movement, wherein said lateral movement is experienced by said stepping platform.

3. The system according to claim 2, wherein said drive mechanism includes a gear transmission, coupled to said motor, that turns a pinion gear, and a gear rack coupled to said stepping platform, wherein said gear rack is engaged by and moved by said pinion gear.

4. The system according to claim 1, wherein said drive mechanism includes a wheel, coupled to said motor, wherein said wheel rotates against and moves said stepping platform.

5. The system according to claim 1, further including a detection mechanism for detecting if said stepping platform is obstructed from moving, wherein said detection mechanism stops said motor when activated.

6. The system according to claim 5, wherein said detection mechanism includes a load sensor for sensing the current load required by said motor, wherein said load sensor stops said motor if said current load surpasses a threshold level.

7. The system according to claim 1, wherein said activation switch is a foot activated switch.

8. The system according to claim 1, further including at least one set of wheels coupled to said stepping platform to support said stepping platform when in said extended position.

9. A cabinet structure, comprising: a storage area; a support base disposed below said storage area, wherein said support base supports said storage area; a platform disposed within said base support, wherein said platform is selectively positionable between a retracted position and an extended position; a motor for moving said platform between said retracted position and said extended position; and an activation switch for selectively activating said motor.

10. The cabinet structure according to claim 9, further including a drive mechanism coupled to said motor and said stepping platform, wherein said drive mechanism converts rotational movement produced by said motor into lateral movement, wherein said lateral movement is experienced by said stepping platform.

11. The system according to claim 9, wherein said drive mechanism is selected from a group consisting of a wheel assembly and a rack and pinion assembly.

12. The cabinet structure according to claim 9, further including a detection mechanism for detecting if said stepping platform is obstructed from moving, wherein said detection mechanism stops said motor when activated.

13. The cabinet structure according to claim 12, wherein said detection mechanism includes a load sensor for sensing a current load required by said motor, wherein said load sensor stops said motor if said current load surpasses a threshold level.

14. The cabinet structure according to claim 9, wherein said activation switch is a foot activated switch.

15. The cabinet structure according to claim 9, further including at least one set of wheels coupled to said platform to support said platform when in said extended position.

16. The cabinet structure according to claim 9, wherein said base support is recessed below said storage area and said platform is flush with said base support when in said retracted position.

17. A method of providing a stepping platform in front of a cabinet structure of the type having a recessed base support, said method comprising the steps of: providing a platform within said base support, wherein said platform can be selectively positioned between a retracted position and an extended position by an electric motor; providing an activation switch proximate said platform for selectively operating said electric motor.

18. The method according to claim 17, further including the steps of detecting obstacles to the movement of said platform between said retracted position and said extended position.

19. The method according to claim 17 further including the step of stopping said electric motor when an obstacle is detected.

20. The method according to claim 17, wherein said platform is at least partially supported by wheels when in said extended position.
Description



BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

[0001] 1. Field of the Invention

[0002] In general, the present invention relates to retractable steps that are built into the structure of a cabinet so that a person can extend the step to better reach above the structure of the cabinet.

[0003] 2. Description of the Prior Art

[0004] Most homes utilize some form of cabinet structure in either the kitchen or the bathroom. There are two basic catagories of cabinets. They include floor cabinets and wall cabinets. Floor cabinets rest on the floor. They are used to support a countertop. A sink, cooking range or the like may be located on the countertop. Floor cabinets are typically between twenty-eight inches and thirty-six inches high. Floor cabinets typically define storage areas. In this manner, goods can be stored in the floor cabinets under the supported countertop. However, the storage areas defined by the floor cabinets traditionally do not extend down to the level of the floor. Rather, the storage area of the cabinet is typically supported a few inches above the level of the floor by a base support. The base support creates an unused area below the storage area of the cabinet. This unused area is typically recessed and covered by a kick plate.

[0005] There are many reasons for placing a recessed base support below the storage area of a cabinet. By recessing the base support, a person's feet can extend under the cabinet structure and a person can comfortably stand close to the cabinet structure and the countertop it supports. The recessed base support prevents water from reaching the storage area of a cabinet structure if the floor were to flood. It also prevents the cabinet doors from becoming scuffed by shoes or dirtied by a mop. Lastly, the recessed base support provides a space through which heating ducts, water lines, and electric cables can be run.

[0006] Another type of cabinet structure is the wall cabinet. Wall cabinets are typically not as wide as floor cabinets. Wall cabinets are designed to hang on the wall. Commonly, wall cabinets are hung on a kitchen wall over the countertop so as to provide further storage space in the kitchen. Although wall cabinets come in many sizes, they typically extend to a height above the reach of the average person.

[0007] Many people lack the stature needed to reach the top of their wall cabinets. As such, people commonly use stools or small stepladders help increase their reach. Using a stool or a stepladder is bothersome because the stool or stepladder must be retrieved, and then returned to storage before and after each use. It is for this reason that people do not place frequently used items to high in their wall cabinets.

[0008] Over the years, many people have attempted to make the task of reaching high into a wall cabinet easier. The most common approach to solving this problem has been the building of stepladder assemblies into the floor cabinet or the door of the floor cabinet. Such prior art is exemplified by U.S. Pat. No. 5,131,492 to Caminiti, entitled, Portable Lightweight Collapsible Footstool, and U.S. Pat. No. 3,030,166 to Richards, entitled Combination Cabinet and Stepladder. Such prior art devices store a collapsible stepping stool in or on the door of the cabinet. This, however, reduces the amount of space in the storage compartment. Additionally, when the stepping stool is extended, a person cannot open the cabinet door behind the extended stool.

[0009] Furthermore, such collapsible stepping stools must be manually extended and retracted by the user. A person therefore, cannot operate these prior art devices when their hands are full.

[0010] A need therefore exists for an improved stepping stool assembly that is completely contained in the recessed base support below a common floor cabinet. A need also exists for a retractable step assembly that can be extended and retracted at the touch of button thereby enabling a person with full hands to operate the device. These needs are met by the present invention as described and claimed below.

SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

[0011] The present invention is a system and method for providing a stepping platform in front of a cabinet structure, so that a person can better reach above the cabinet structure. The system includes a motorized platform that is retracted into the base support below the cabinet structure. When a person needs the platform, that person engages an activation switch. Once the activation switch is depressed, an electric motor drives the platform forward in front of the cabinet structure. Once fully extended, the platform can be stood upon, thereby adding between three inches and six inches of height to the person. When the platform is no longer needed, the activation switch is again engaged. The electric motor retracts the platform back into the base support below the cabinet structure.

[0012] To prevent the platform from causing injury or knocking over any object, the platform is equipped with a sensor that detects if the platform has contacted another object when it is moving between its retracted position and its extended position. If an object is detected, the movement of the platform is either stopped or reversed.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

[0013] For a better understanding of the present invention, reference is made to the following description of an exemplary embodiment thereof, considered in conjunction with the accompanying drawings, in which:

[0014] FIG. 1 is a perspective view of a section of floor mounted kitchen cabinets containing the present invention assembly;

[0015] FIG. 2 is a cross-sectional view of a first embodiment of the present invention assembly;

[0016] FIG. 3 is a cross-sectional view of a second embodiment of the present invention assembly; and

[0017] FIG. 4 is block diagram schematic of the present invention assembly.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE INVENTION

[0018] Although the present invention assembly and method can be located in the base support of most any counter or sink basin, the present invention is especially well suited for use on floor mounted kitchen cabinets. As such, by way of example, the embodiment of the present invention described will be in an application that includes floor mounted kitchen cabinets. Such a choice of configuration should not be considered a limitation on the possible applications for the present invention assembly and method. Rather, such an embodiment is presented merely as the best contemplated mode for utilizing the present invention assembly and method.

[0019] Referring to FIG. 1, an exemplary embodiment of the present invention assembly 10 is shown in an application where the system is located in a floor cabinet 12 under a kitchen sink 14. The present invention system 10 includes a retractable stepping platform 16 that can be selectively extended from the base of most any floor cabinet 12. The purpose of the stepping platform 16 is to provide an elevated surface upon which a person can stand. The exemplary embodiment of showing the stepping platform under a sink is a common application for the assembly. Often children have a hard time reaching the recessed faucet controls on a traditional kitchen sink. As such, it is difficult for a child to operate the faucet to get a drink of water or to wash their hands. By positioning the present invention assembly 10 in the floor cabinet under the sink, the step can be selectively extended by a child. Once extended, the child can stand on the step and reach the faucet controls on the sink. It will also be understood that the present invention system can help any person better reach a wall cabinet, shelf, window or any other object that may be located above a floor cabinet 12 containing the present invention assembly 10.

[0020] From FIG. 1, it can be seen that the present invention assembly 10 is located in the recessed base support 18 below the cabinet's doors 19. This area of the base support 18 is usually covered by a kick plate 20. However, in the present example, a section of the kick plate 20 has been removed and the present invention assembly 10 installed. The present invention assembly is electrically operated. As will later be explained, all the components used in the functioning of the assembly 10 are located within the recessed area of the base support 18.

[0021] The purpose of the present invention assembly 10 is to provide an elevated platform that can be selectively extended and retracted. To cycle the stepping platform 16 between a retracted position and an extended position, a person contacts an activation switch 22. In the shown embodiment, the activation switch 22 is shown in the kick plate 20 adjacent the stepping platform 16. However, such a location is merely exemplary. The activation switch 22 can be located on the vertical face 24 of the stepping platform 16, on the cabinet 12 or above the cabinet 12. If located on the kick plate 20 or on the vertical face 24 of the stepping platform 16, then a person's foot contacts the activation switch 22. Once contacted, the stepping platform 16 will move from a retracted position to an extended position, or vice versa. If the activation switch is located on the cabinet 12 or above the cabinet 12, the activation switch 22 can be contacted by hand, thereby cycling the stepping platform 16 in the same manner.

[0022] When the stepping platform 16 is in its retracted position, the vertical face 24 of the stepping platform 16 lies flush with the kick plate 20. The vertical face 24 of the stepping platform 16 is preferably the same color as the kick plate 20 so as to be unnoticeable. When the stepping platform 16 is extended, the top surface 26 of the stepping platform 16 extends outwardly away from the kick plate 20. The length and width of the top surface 26 of the stepping platform 16 are no larger than the length and the width of the recessed base support 18 of the cabinet in which it is located. The top surface 26 of the stepping platform 16 preferably has a rubber or otherwise non-slip cover to help prevent a person from slipping off the stepping platform 16 when standing upon the stepping platform 16.

[0023] Referring now to FIG. 2, a first embodiment of the assembly 10 is shown. From FIG. 2, it can be seen that the stepping platform 16 is supported by a set of wheels 30 near its vertical face 24. The wheels 30 bear the weight of a person standing on the stepping platform 16 and prevent the stepping platform 16 from marring the floor.

[0024] The stepping platform 16 is moved between its retracted position and its extended position by a reversible electric motor 32. When the reversible motor 32 rotates in a first direction, the stepping platform 16 is retracted. When the reversible motor 32 rotates in the opposite direction, the stepping platform 16 is extended. In the shown embodiment, the motor 32 is used to drive a geared transmission 34. The geared transmission 34 turns a wheel 36 that is biased against the bottom of the stepping platform 16. As the wheel 36 turns, the stepping platform 16 is either retracted toward the motor 32 or extended away from the motor 32, thereby either retracting or extending the stepping platform 16.

[0025] In FIG. 2, the stepping platform 16 defines a confined area 40 that is open facing the motor 32. In this manner, the stepping platform 16 can pass over the motor 32 when the stepping platform 16 is fully retracted. This enables both the stepping platform 16 and the motor 32 to share the same confined space under a cabinet.

[0026] Referring now to FIG. 3 an alternate embodiment of the assembly 10 is shown in accordance with the present invention. The embodiment of FIG. 3 shares many features with the previous embodiment of FIG. 2. For the purposes of clarity, features having the same function between the two embodiments will be identified with the same reference number.

[0027] From FIG. 3, it can be seen that the stepping platform 16 is supported by a set of wheels 30 near its vertical face 24. The wheels 30 bear the weight of a person standing on the stepping platform 16 and prevent the stepping platform 16 from marring the floor.

[0028] The stepping platform 16 is moved between its retracted position and its extended position by a reversible electric motor 32. When the reversible motor 32 rotates in a first direction, the stepping platform 16 is retracted. When the reversible motor 32 rotates in the opposite direction, the stepping platform 16 is extended. In the shown embodiment, the motor 32 is used to drive a geared transmission 34. The geared transmission 34 turns a pinion gear 37 that is engaged with a gear rack 39. The gear rack 39 is joined to the stepping platform 16. As the pinion gear 37 turns, the gear rack 39 is either retracted toward the motor 32 or extended away from the motor 32, thereby either retracting or extending the stepping platform 16.

[0029] In the embodiments of FIG. 2 and FIG. 3, the linear drive mechanism that moves the stepping platform differs. There are many mechanisms that exist in the prior art that can create reciprocating linear motion. Many such devices do not use wheels or rack and pinion mechanisms, but rater use threaded shafts, pulleys, cables and the like. Any such prior art liner motion mechanism can be adapted for use in the present invention.

[0030] Referring to FIG. 4, a schematic of the present invention assembly 10 is shown. In this schematic, it can be seen that a motor 32 is used to power a linear drive mechanism 42. The linear drive mechanism 42 is used to covert the rotational energy of the motor 32 into reciprocating linear movement. As such, the linear drive mechanism 42 is capable of selectively moving the stepping platform 16 between a retracted position and an extended position. As has been previously described, the initial activation of the motor 32 is created by a person contacting an activation switch 22. Once the activation switch 22 is depressed, the stepping platform 16 is moved from either the retracted or extended position back to the opposite position. The system also includes two travel limit switches 44, 46. The travel limit switches 44, 46 are coupled to the motor 32 and let the motor 32 detect when the stepping platform 16 is at its fully extended or fully retracted position. In this manner, the motor 32 is prevented from over-rotating and damaging itself, the linear drive mechanism 42 and/or the stepping platform 16.

[0031] When the stepping platform 16 extends outwardly, it is only a few inches above the floor. Consequently, when the stepping platform 16 moves to its fully extended position, the stepping platform 16 may contact the feet or ankles of any person standing in front of the stepping platform 16. To prevent injury, two elements are designed into the system. First, the stepping platform 16 extends slowly into the fully extended position. Preferably it takes the stepping platform 16 at least five seconds to cycle from the fully retracted position to the fully extended position. At this speed, the stepping platform 16 will have only nominal kinetic energy and momentum as it extends, thereby reducing the chances of a contact injury.

[0032] Secondly, the system includes an obstacle detector that automatically stops or reverses the extension/retraction cycle should the moving stepping platform 16 ever contact an object. In the schematic present in FIG. 3, the obstacle detector has taken the form of a motor load sensor 50. Should the stepping platform 16 contact an object while extending, the load on the motor 32 extending the stepping platform 16 would increase. If that load increases beyond a predetermined threshold level, it can be assumed that the stepping platform 16 has contacted a large object, such as a foot, a mop bucket, the family pet or the like. The motor load sensor then causes the motor 32 to either stop or reverse and retract to the fully retracted position. Furthermore, if some object were to snag on the stepping platform 16 as it is retracting, the load on the motor retracting the stepping platform 16 would also increase. If the load increase surpasses a threshold value, it can be assumed that some object has become entangled with the stepping platform 16, or there is some object still resting on the stepping platform 16. In this situation, the load sensor instructs the motor 32 to stop. After the entangled object is removed, or the object removed from atop the stepping platform 16, the activation switch 22 can again be depressed and the stepping platform 16 will retract as designed.

[0033] The motor load sensor 50 is merely exemplary and it should be understood that other object sensors can be used in conjunction with or in place of the motor load sensor 50. Contact sensors, ultrasonic sensors, infrared sensors and the like can all be used in the stepping platform 16 to detect if an object is in front of or on the top of the stepping platform 16.

[0034] It will be understood that the embodiment of the present invention described and illustrated herein is merely exemplary and a person skilled in the art can make many variations to the embodiments shown without departing from the scope of the present invention. All such variations, modifications and alternate embodiments are intended to be included within the scope of the present invention as defined by the appended claims.

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