Posts about Products

Appropriate Technology and Focus on Improving Lives at MIT

I have written about the D-lab at MIT founded by Amy Smith. This is just a reminder of all the good stuff they are doing. The D-Lab is building a global network of innovators to design and disseminate technologies that meaningfully improve the lives of people living in poverty. The program’s mission is pursued through interdisciplinary courses, technology development, and community initiatives, all of which emphasize experiential learning, real-world projects, community-led development, and scalability.

Another of their initiatives, the International Development Innovators Network seeks to create low-cost, high-impact technologies and ventures, while simultaneously documenting and evaluating approaches to international development that value local ingenuity and innovation. This effort includes design summits, innovation centers, business incubators, and a growing network of over 400 innovators in 50 countries.

D-Lab’s Youth Outreach Program focuses on Hands-on Invention Education and works with primary and secondary school teachers to develop curricular materials that build the confidence and skills needed by the next generation of innovators from around the world. Together with students and educators from around the world, D-Lab is developing and delivering hands-on curricula aimed at youth that utilize affordable locally available resources.

The program continues to help develop and deploy great products that are meeting the needs to people around the world.

The Leveraged Freedom Chair, is an all-terrain wheelchair designed for the harsh terrain faced by people with disabilities in developing countries.

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Self Driving Cars Have Huge Potential for Benefit to Society

Self-driving cars was something that seemed very far-fetched when I first read Google was seriously investing in pursuing that idea as a commercially viable product (Google’s Self Driving Car – 2010 post). I quickly became convinced they were right. I still think it is questionable if they will succeed (the political issues may well be even more difficult than technical ones). But the chances of success seem reasonable and the investment in research could provide a huge payoff.

Google’s self driving cars have driven 700,000 miles without an accident already; which is amazing. Warren Buffett stated that “self-driving cars are a real threat to the car insurance business” (His company owns the GIECO car insurance company) at the 2014 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting in Omaha.

There are some people, stressing that this is not ready for mass market use. They are right. But, I think it is funny to see people thinking that a very early stage huge innovation in transportation not being ready today is a reasonable criticism. I am amazed that this huge innovation may actually be available before 2020. That would be incredible.

Certainly even then it will have limitations. And certainly there will be accidents. The current transportation system with humans driving cars has thosands of accidents a day and tens of thousands of deaths a year in the USA alone every year. Every year 1.2 million people die worldwide in traffic-related incidents, and over 90% of those accidents are due to human error.

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Stop Sign Mistake Proofing

This is a pretty cool example of using technology to prevent problems. The video shows a system that cascades a sheet of water and displays a stop sign directly in the path of trucks ready to crash into a tunnel (because the truck is too tall).

The driver had ignored several less obvious signals that they were headed for danger. This is an application of one of my favorite management (and industrial engineering) concepts: mistake proofing. As I have stated before, often it is really mistake making more difficult rather than mistake proofing. This truck driver ignored the first several warnings and actually could have ignored this one. This system doesn’t physically prevent the error (the options to do this I can think of would be impractical) but this does prevent the errors in any reasonable case it seems to me.

It does seem the process could be improved a big by doing the cool shower stop sign when the truck still has time to turn off without a huge delay. From the video it seems the truck progressed to a point where getting it out of the way created a major traffic backup.

Related: Practicing Mistake-Promoting Instead of Mistake-Proofing at AppleVisual Management with Brown M&MsPoor Results Should be Addressed by Improving the System Not Blaming IndividualsCutting the Boarding Time of Planes in Half

DIY Air Filters for Your House

In January 2013 PhD student Thomas Talhelm, was living in Bejing, China with very bad air pollution and wondered why air purifiers cost so much. He bought a HEPA filter on Taobao, strapped it to a simple fan, bought a particle counter, ran some tests, and published the results.

As the effort gained publicity and people said they had trouble finding the right type of fan and a trustworthy HEPA, Thomas and his friends Gus and Anna decided to launch Smart Air in September 2013 to ship fans and the best HEPAs they could find to people all over China.

Smart Air believes that if more people saw their open­ source data and testing, more people would know that clean air doesn’t have to cost thousands of RMB (hundred of USD). The simplest solution (a fan, filter and strap to hold the filter to a fan) costs 200 RMB (under US $35).

I love simple solutions. And I love entrepreneurship combined with engineering to provide customers value.

Related: Air Pollution Resulted in 223,000 Cancer Deaths in 2010Extremely Bad Haze in Johor Bahru and SingaporeUsing Drones to Deliver Medical Supplies in Roadless AreasPay as You Go Solar in India

It is also great that they provide useful data including: HEPAs lasted 90 days without any drop in effectiveness, then effectiveness dropped by 4% between days 100-130. It’s up to you to decide whether that 4% is enough to warrant changing your filter after 3 months of nightly use.

iPhone Addition as Alternative to Expensive Ophthalmology Equipment

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have developed two inexpensive adapters that enable a smartphone to capture high-quality images of the front and back of the eye. The adapters make it easy for anyone with minimal training to take a picture of the eye and share it securely with other health practitioners or store it in the patient’s electronic record.

The researchers see this technology as an opportunity to increase access to eye-care services as well as to improve the ability to advise on patient care remotely.

The standard equipment used to photograph the eye is expensive — costing up to tens of thousands of dollars — and requires extensive training to use properly. Primary care physicians and emergency department staff often lack this equipment, and although it is readily available in ophthalmologists’ offices, it is sparse in rural areas throughout the world.

“Adapting smartphones for the eye has the potential to enhance the delivery of eye care — in particular, to provide it in places where it’s less accessible,” said Myung. “Whether it’s in the emergency department, where patients often have to wait a long time for a specialist, or during a primary-care physician visit, we hope that we can improve the quality of care for our patients, especially in the developing world where ophthalmologists are few and far between.”

“A picture is truly worth a thousand words,” he added. “Imagine a car accident victim arriving in the emergency department with an eye injury resulting in a hyphema — blood inside the front of her eye. Normally the physician would have to describe this finding in her electronic record with words alone. Smartphones today not only have the camera resolution to supplement those words with a high-resolution photo, but also the data-transfer capability to upload that photo securely to the medical record in a matter of seconds.

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Water Wheel

As I have posted before I really love appropriate technology solutions that make a difference in people’s lives. And those that help those that have the largest challenges (the very poor where even water and electricity are challenges).

hello wello from wello on Vimeo.

Wello is a venture to improve people’s lives, they found women spend over 25% of their time each day collecting water. With the WaterWheel, they can now transport 50 liters at once – between 3 and 5 times the amount of water possible as compared to traditional methods: this means more water in less time.

Research shows that when women have extra time, they choose to spend it on activities that boost family income, education, health, and wellbeing.

Related: Clay Water Filters for GhanaEngineering a Better World: Bike Corn-ShellerPedal Powered Washing Machine

Using Drones to Deliver Medical Supplies in Roadless Areas

This is an awesome use of technology to tackle important problems. Engineers are great.

Humanitarian drones to deliver medical supplies to roadless areas

That idea soon became a start-up called Matternet – a network for transporting matter – which aims to help the one billion people who do not have year-round access to roads.

[Andreas] Raptopoulos said the new system would be used to leapfrog the building of infrastructure, in the same way mobile networks have overtaken fixed lines in poorly connected countries.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 85% of roads are inaccessible during the wet season, cutting off huge swaths of the population and hindering the transport of medical supplies, he said.

There are three parts to the system delivering medical goods: the UAVs themselves, landing stations where packages can be dropped off and transferred, and the software that ensures vehicles get securely from point to point. Because of their short battery life, networks of drones are needed to work together, shuttling between ground stations

Approximate costings from Matternet put the price of unmanned aerial vehicles at £6,000 each and ground stations at £3,000 each. A network of five ground stations and 10 UAVs, as well as setup and training, would cost a charity in the region of £90,000, according to Raptopoulos. An eight-propeller drone can carry 2kg and travel 10km in good weather. Batteries need to be replaced every 600 cycles.

They are hiring: software engineer and avionic engineering right now. They are Palo Alto, California.

Related: Appropriate Technology Health Care Solution Could Save 72,000 Lives a YearCellphone MicroscopePay as You Go Solar in IndiaWater and Electricity for All

Pedal Powered Washing Machine

It is very easy to forget billions of people alive today do not have access to electricity, clean water and things like washing machines at home. As I have said before I love appropriate technology. Even more than that I love to see successful deployments of appropriate technology that make people’s lives better.

It is also great to see kids with the perseverance to make these products to meet needs they see around them. We need to do what we can to encourage these types of kids. They are the future engineers and entrepreneurs that will make lives better for the rest of society.

Remya Jose, a 14 year school girl from Kerala, India created this wonderful machine. Another version of it, has the normal bike pedals (closer together, instead of spread out, on opposite sides of the machine, like in the video).

As far as I can tell the original video was from 2008 (and Remya created the machine in 2005). I haven’t been able to find the current status of the product, this is the best I could find (from 2008). Turning these innovations into products that succeed commercially is very hard.

If I had control of a national development program (or if I just become super rich and have millions to devote to making the world better, I think an effort like this would be something I would try) I would put working with these kids to make the products work very high on my list of priorities. The learning process and creation of engineers and entrepreneurs would be extremely valuable on top of any success the products had.

Related: Appropriate Technology: Washing Clothes by Machine Instead by HandWashing Machine Uses 90% Less WaterEngineering a Better World: Bike Corn-Shelleranother bicycle washing machineAutomatic Dog Washing Machine

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Hacking the Standard Bike Wheel

The Copenhagen Wheel stores energy (from braking…) and provides it when you need it (going up hill…). It is good to see innovation that helps transportation and can encourage people to be more active. Order now for $799.

Related: Engineering a Better World: Bike Corn-ShellerSeparated Bike Lanes Reduced Injuries by 45% and Increased Retail Sales 49% (for nearby stores)Bike Folds To Footprint of 1 WheelSports Engineering at MIT

Appropriate Technology Brings a $1.30/month Cell Phone Plan to Remote Village

I love this kind of stuff: smart use of engineering provides cell phone service to remote Mexican village, with 9,000 residents, for $1.30/month (1/13 of the price charge by traditional cell phone service in Mexico City).

The town that Carlos Slim forgot

It’s so remote that there was no cell service. In stepped Rhizomatica, a nonprofit with the goal of increasing “access to mobile telecommunications to the over two billion people without affordable coverage and the 700 million with none at all.”

The U.S. and European experts working with Mexican engineers got the network set up by March of this year. At first, they ruled that phone calls were not to be longer than five minutes each to keep the small network from getting saturated.

By May, local numbers in Mexico City, Los Angeles and Seattle were set up, meaning that Oaxacans in Villa Talea could call relatives in the capital or in California as if it were practically a local call, a few cents a minute.

Given the success they are buying equipment that can handle the volume and will donate the existing equipment to setup a new village (a smaller one, I imagine). This was the first village they setup.

Long-distance is go

After almost two months of fine-tuning, long-distance service is finally ready to launch. This means folks in the town will be able to call out of the coverage area (only around 5-10km) to any phone, anywhere. Likewise we purchased a few DID numbers which allow people to call a Mexico City, Los Angeles or Seattle number and connect right to the village.

This is one of so many great efforts to use appropriate technology to improve people’s lives. It is easy for me to get frustrated at the cash for votes mentality of the USA politicians which creates policies against improvement for society and for protection of obsolete business models (until the bought-and-paid-for politicians make the business models sustainable by legislating against better options). It is great to see these kind of examples for the good work being done outside of the political sphere.

Related: Pay as You Go Solar in IndiaProviding Computer to Remote Students in NepalReducing Poverty Using EntrepreneurshipMonopolies and Oligopolies do not a Free Market Make

3d Printers Can Already Save Consumers Money

I first wrote about 3d printing at home here, on the Curious Cat Engineering blog, in 2007. Revolutionary technology normally takes quite a while to actually gain mainstream viability. I am impressed how quickly 3d printing has moved and am getting more convinced we are underestimating the impact. The quality of the printing is improving amazingly quickly.

3d printed objects

As is so often the case these day, our broken patent system is delaying innovation in our society. For 3d printing there is a good argument the delays due to the innovation crippling way that system is operating today will be avoided as critical 3d patents expire in 2014. Patents can aid society but the current system is not, instead it is causing society great harm and delaying us being able to use new innovations.

“For the average American consumer, 3D printing is ready for showtime,” said Associate Professor Joshua Pearce, Michigan Technological University.

3D printers deposit multiple layers of plastic or other materials to make almost anything, from toys to tools to kitchen gadgets. Free designs that direct the printers are available by the tens of thousands on websites like Thingiverse (a wonderful site). Visitors can download designs to make their own products using open-source 3D printers, like the RepRap, which you build yourself from printed parts, or those that come in a box ready to print, from companies like Type-A Machines.

3D printers have been the purview of a relative few aficionados, but that is changing fast, Pearce said. The reason is financial: the typical family can already save a great deal of money by making things with a 3D printer instead of buying them off the shelf.

In the study, Pearce and his team chose 20 common household items listed on Thingiverse. Then they used Google Shopping to determine the maximum and minimum cost of buying those 20 items online, shipping charges not included.

Next, they calculated the cost of making them with 3D printers. The conclusion: it would cost the typical consumer from $312 to $1,944 to buy those 20 things compared to $18 to make them in a weekend.

Open-source 3D printers for home use have price tags ranging from about $350 to $2,000. Making the very conservative assumption a family would only make 20 items a year, Pearce’s group calculated that the printers would pay for themselves quickly, in a few months to a few years.

The group chose relatively inexpensive items for their study: cellphone accessories, a garlic press, a showerhead, a spoon holder, and the like. 3D printers can save consumers even more money on high-end items like customized orthotics and photographic equipment.

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