Design that Matters

Summary: February 20, 2001

Guest this week: Amy Smith



Week 2. Feb 20

Real World Projects: how it happens? (Tuesday)

Review NGO and project case studies. Brainstorm on design concepts.


Amy Smith



Write-ups on Interests and Problem Domains



Baygen case study, water drum case study, malnutrition band case study.




Amy Smith, Lemelson Prize Winner, 2000


Amy Smith has been a grad student at MIT for 10 years and spent 4 years working with the Peace Corps. She did beekeeping work at the ministry of agriculture. She has always focused on engineering design for developing countries. She has developed connections with many non-governmental organizations during this period.


Amy says this is a good time at be working with such development-related technologies, for two reasons: MIT is now much more supportive of what has been perceived as “low-tech” research as it wants to expand to global problems. Also as communication access has improved everywhere it is far easier to make contact and have interactions with NGO groups and communities abroad. Hence she now teaches a undergrad class for the last 3 years, where student teams work on such problems with local and remote communities.


She has been working on several projects including developing medical equipment for diagnosis in remote areas. Contagious diseases like TB and Cholera requires empowering local clinics to prevent the spread more easily. She has been developing simple TB Testing kits and small labs.


Amy says going form ideas to prototypes is only part of the challenge, the greater challenge is going to products.  She emphasized that there are many prototypes, but very few make it to successful products. This requires much more than just innovation. So there is a real tension between innovative or appropriate research vs. providing affordable products.


She defined ”Appropriate Technology” as one that makes good use of local resources an works effectively in local regions. If it is not produced locally, then one must understand the supply chain in distributing it effectively there. For example it must be robust enough to be transported there safely.


Appropriate tech does not necessarily mean “low-tech” … it can have the same functionality as high-tech products, in fact in some cases high-tech solutions are necessary to leap-frog a certain long-standing problem domain, however new designs are needed to fill the right niche appropriately.


What does high-tech mean – high performing, complex? This can be misleading in developing design solutions.


Why is it that certain simple innovations don’t arise sooner? People are not always looking at particular problems in the right manner. They don’t always draw parallels between other fields that may help.


Developing new technologies for a specialized locale.  Have to remember that information/communications are much more fragmented in remote areas of the world and it takes a long time to spread new form of technology, even if the design is a good one.  In some ways, this is a good feedback mechanism: if your design survives the diffusion process in remote areas, it is a good one.


Why certain practices are adopted in some areas and not in others.  Biogas as an example: generation of methane from cow manure, able to use it for cooking stoves.  Successfully adopted in India, no one will use it in Africa.  And not a resistance to touching the manure; it is used to build houses in Africa too.  Interesting questions of culture, attitudes.  Also noted, technologies which succeed in Asia, but not in Africa.  Different levels of population pressure, land availability, trends towards urbanization.


Two types of processes in appropriate technology design: a) see a problem, find a solution; b) have a solution, look for a problem that it can address.  Consider frame of mind - connecting things that you see, fragments of information which can become an integrated solution.  Example of water filtration mechanism which used a mile of string.  Tedious to wind this up.  Then find that Buddhist monks use cloth, so move to five layers of cloth and no string.  Then learn that iron filings remove arsenic from water; add these in and have a nice water filtration device.  Strong encouragement for interdisciplinary - survey as many fields as possible.  How to capture it all, catalogue it?  Mentioned NASA tech briefs on non flammable plastics.  But how to make so much knowledge easy to access?  Libraries, archives, info retrieval mechanisms.


Discussion of the incubator for water quality testing in Nepal.  Know that samples needed to be held at 37 degrees Celsius for 24 hours. The key innovation was finding a suitable chemical, which melts at this temperature.  When considering chemicals prescreened - this is not harmful, toxic, mutagenic or teratogenic.  May be a mild irritant, but can be disposed of safely.  [Amy has requested not reveal the name of the chemical used at this point, as she is in the process of making this a commercial product]. For the device, one heats it up on a stove in Tupperware container, interior which hold test tubes is aluminum.  Maintains 37 degrees C for the specified time.  Approximate cost (material components only) under $50.  Looking at ways to reduce costs still further.  Question of margin of error +/- 1 degree C?  How to be sure of accuracy of test?  Also question of reuses - crystalline structure of the frozen chemical; cannot freeze and melt repeatedly without some deterioration.  Possible use of thremochromic inks to gauge lifespan of device.  Still an improvement over more expensive, heavier incubators that are prone to malfunction in field over time as well.  Always an issue with failure modes - example of plows in Zimbabwe - how to make bolts break before the blade bends.


Turn to discussion of community involvement - how to make the technology relevant and integrated in local context.  Example of grain mill in Senegal.  Very popular item, especially among women’s groups, who spend up to four hours a day pounding grain.  Makes this tedious task easier; possibility of engaging in other endeavors with time saved using technology.  Three varieties of grain mills: a) roller mills - problem - hard to maintain tolerances, surface finish must be precise; b) plate, or burr, mill - problem - abrasive surfaces get worn down over time, expensive to replace and orders take months to arrive at village; c) hammer mill - problem -screen mesh sifts flour, if damaged by a stone, or other foreign object, the mill is useless.  Same issue as plate mill - expensive imported parts that take months to get there.  Chose to work on the hammer mill.  Looked at flow, pressures inside the mill, found proper geometry for the outlet, and switched to a lawn mower style blade which did not require pillow block bearings and ran with a smaller motor.  Worked closely with local blacksmith, an excellent engineer in his own right, to build the revised hammer mill and generated excitement in community (his family in particular) for this new device.  At the end realized a 25% reduction in cost to build relative to traditional hammer mill and it now takes ½ as much time to grind the same amount of grain.


Issue raised of traditional life ways - it is good that women are moving away from traditional methods of handling grain (mortar and pestle) ?  Example of a woman who would not sell all her tomatoes to one person, because then she would have nothing left to sell.  How to read people’s desires and help them develop appropriate technology to solve for those needs.  Also, what is appropriate documentation for appropriate technology?  How to explain to future builder that the placement of the hole was important.  Problem of confusing mechanical failure with technical failure, if plans are not clear.  Some people prefer to learn by show and tell, others by reading.  In any case, good to leave room for future improvements.  It is indeed hard to design appropriate solutions sitting at MIT in Cambridge without exposure on the field. The best way to learn in our context at MIT is to listen to people who have been in the field and done it before.  Without practitioners in the classroom, who would imagine that paper wasps build nests in computers in Malawi!


Notes by Barbara Mac and Nitin Sawhney, Feb 20