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12/10/2010 16:00:00

Engineering for the Other Half

"Nothing happens in industry from the sole effort of a single mind working in isolation." That, says Visiting Professor of Mechanical Engineering Ken Pickar, is a lesson every young engineer needs to learn. And it's a recurring theme of his course E/ME 105, "Product Design for the Developing World." The course, created with input from the Caltech chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), emphasizes that products don't bring themselves to market unaided—that engineers can be the agents of lasting global change—and that there's more to innovation than just cleverness.

This year's class consisted of sixteen Techers, along with another sixteen attending SaintGITS, a technical university in southwestern India. Their task: define and attempt to solve a number of problems affecting India's poorest residents.

Under the guidance of Professor Jason Issac, the SaintGITS students did much of the initial research, interviewing local business owners, farmers, and professionals. They uncovered several recurring themes, including reduced costs and the empowerment of women, who are largely underrepresented in the workforce. Ultimately, the group proposed seven projects: three involving India's rice and rubber industries, two dealing with health care, and two addressing the insufficiencies of the country's power grid. Teams then began brainstorming via instant messaging and videoconferences (evening in Pasadena corresponds to morning in India), and on December 7 they presented their results.

One proposed device, roughly the size of a deck of cards, is intended to be strapped outside the window of a commuter bus. Over the course of a one-hour ride, its tiny wind-driven turbine would provide enough electricity to charge a cell phone battery. Another project, a personal sleeping fan, proposes to combat India's fierce equatorial heat without air conditioning. It resembles a similar device currently marketed by a UK company, but by lowering the engineering tolerances ("do all the vents need to be exactly the same diameter?"), the team was able to drop costs dramatically.

Given the specific problems being addressed, not every one of the group's projects would likely find a market in the West. However, Pickar encouraged his students to consider the possibility of filing for intellectual property protection where appropriate. For instance, one concept, arising from discussions with medical professionals, was a device to simplify the process of transferring hospital patients between bed and wheelchair. Its design elegantly integrates quick-release hinges and rollers into a large collapsible board. Another was a set of crutches adaptable for use on staircases. By providing extra contact surfaces, they would replace the traditional plant-swing-and-hop procedure with a much gentler lift-and-lower motion, reducing the likelihood of tumbles. In fact, the team's first two prototypes (fashioned from PVC pipe and metal tubing) proved so stable, a tester reported having successfully suspended himself in midair for a full minute.

Throughout the course, at least as much attention is devoted to surprises, failures, and lessons learned as to successes. It's all part of the process, Pickar says: Engineering is mostly trial and error, and students must learn to welcome both of those phases, not to fear them.

"They need to make mistakes in a safe environment," he grins, "before they do it for real."

For more on the course, read "Product Design for the Developing World."