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ILP Institute Insider

July 14, 2014
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GEARing Technology for Developing Markets

Several years ago, as a graduate student at MIT, Amos Winter spent a summer in Tanzania surveying wheelchair technology. What he found was a disconnect between the products and the lives of their customers.
Amos Winter
Assistant Professor
Mechanical Engineering
“You had normal wheelchairs that worked fine indoors but were tough to take off road, and you had hand-powered tricycles that worked pretty well on smooth terrain over long distances, but were difficult to manage off-road and way too big to use indoors,” says Winter. “I saw a need for a product that could go fast and efficiently on rough terrain but was still small enough to use indoors.”

That insight resulted in the Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC), developed at the Global Engineering and Research Laboratory (GEAR Lab), which Winter directs. The LFC is an early success story in the emerging field of low-cost, high-performance technology for the rural poor. The novel device, which is powered with a hand lever, incorporates a single-speed, variable mechanical advantage drivetrain. Grasping high on the lever increases torque, while grasping low increases speed. The all-terrain design goes 80 percent faster and enables 50 percent higher peak wheel torque than a conventional wheelchair. It’s also constructed from standard bicycle parts, making it easier to repair.

GEAR Lab is working on a number of projects aimed at emerging markets, including an irrigation drip system, prosthetic limbs, and a low-cost tractor with an innovative single-cylinder turbocharged engine. “The convergence of the technical and the socioeconomic is the backbone of GEAR Lab,” says Winter, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. “One of our core ideas is constraint-driven innovation. The problems we’re trying to solve have by and large been solved in wealthier markets. What we’re trying to do is bring a similar level of performance to poorer markets, but at a fraction of the price.”

GEAR Lab projects tend to share two qualities: a compelling need faced by millions of typically poor, rural users, and what Winter calls a technological keystone — a challenging technological barrier that requires a groundbreaking solution. “What’s exciting is that we’re running into technical problems that no one has solved,” says Winter. “They involve some fundamental science.”

Along the way, GEAR Lab conducts the research needed to articulate the engineering theory of each gizmo it builds. This includes details on how the technology performs, and how it might scale with different sizes and material types — information others can use to adapt the technology to new applications. For example, a high-efficiency drip irrigation nozzle the lab is building with India’s Jain Irrigation could potentially be adapted for use in a heart valve, says Winter.

Listening to the Culture
The biggest challenge in building devices for developing markets lies in understanding a different set of constraints and requirements, says Winter. These often include simplicity, low cost, local repairability, and, when possible, local manufacturing.

“Instead of making this perfect technology and bringing it to the field, we interact with stakeholders early and test prototypes in the field,” says Winter. “Through the LFC project, I learned that we need to blend in socioeconomic factors and find out what people wanted. It’s important to engage the users directly and understand all the factors in their life that will be influenced.”

With GEAR Lab’s “ATKnee” prosthetic knee project in India, for example, Winter discovered that a knee designed for sitting in chairs won’t necessarily work for sitting cross-legged, as is the custom in rural India. “Being able to sit cross-legged contributes a lot to how you interact with your family, how you sit down to dinner,” says Winter. “We were able to catch this design requirement early and redesign the prototype so the leg can twist in a way that lets you sit on the floor.”

In a separate prosthetic foot project, meanwhile, GEAR Lab collaborates with BMVSS — the largest disability organization in the world — to design a lighter, lower-cost version of the their popular Jaipur Foot. In this case, the problem was how to make it easier to squat when wearing the device. Based on input from users, the lab is designing the Jaipur Foot 2.0 to provide ankle flexibility for easier squatting.

Other adjustments are made after the researchers learn more about the manufacturing, distribution, and repair ecosystem of a given product. “We try to understand the entire chain of stakeholders,” says Winter. “If we capture that early on, it sets us on a better trajectory.”

Winter has launched a startup called Global Research Innovation and Technology (GRIT) to move prototypes developed in GEAR Lab into product form. For example, GRIT has refined the LFC prototype to address the realities of manufacturing, quality control, and packaging. The wheelchair is now being sold in India by GRIT in partnership with Indian manufacturers and NGOs. “Going from prototype to product is sometimes the biggest barrier,” says Winter.

While GEAR Lab and GRIT often partner with NGOs, including BMVSS, they primarily collaborate with for-profit companies. “They have more motivation for success, and typically, their scale of distribution usually far exceeds that of any NGO,” says Winter. “It’s all about finding the big player that is best positioned to get a product to market.”

Turbocharged Tractor Aims Low
In India, farmers don’t usually invest in a tractor unless they farm at least five acres, says Winter. Yet there are over 100 million Indian farmers — and a billion worldwide — who own less than that. “They’re farming with a bullock, 2,000 year old technology,” says Winter. “We’re thinking about how we could bring powered farming to these lower-level farmers. It’s an absolutely untapped market.”

Instead of simply designing a cheap, easily repairable tractor, Winter researched the overall needs of small farmers in India. “We found they need more than a tractor,” he says. “What they really need is a mobile power source that can help do a variety of tasks. In addition to plowing and field prep, they may need water pumping and purification, electrical generation, and transportation for the family and for bringing crops to market.”

In order to reduce costs and energy usage, GEAR Lab is looking to build a tractor that will most likely use a single-cylinder diesel engine. The challenge is that it’s tough to provide tractor-like power with only one cylinder. In a tractor design aimed at the U.S. market, one would simply add more cylinders to boost power, but at this level of cost sensitivity, the rules change.

“In an economy car, the engine cost is a fraction of the overall cost, so going from one to three cylinders is not that big of a deal,” says Winter. “But with a generator, where a major cost is the engine, adding more cylinders can create a pretty significant jump in cost.”

To gain more power from a single cylinder, GEAR Lab is looking at new ways to turbocharge it to force more fresh air into the engine in order to burn more fuel. “Historically single or two-cylinder engines haven’t been turbocharged because of the mismatch of how the turbo is powered with the exhaust and when fresh air is drawn into the engine,” says Winter. “We’ve figured out a way around that mismatch.”

Winter tries to keep his projects focused, and often depends on the expertise of partner companies to fill in the blanks. “The key is whether my partner organization has the skillset to create all of those other elements we can’t build, so we can focus on the technological keystone,” says Winter. With the irrigation project, for example, GEAR Lab is building a drip emitter that can run on lower pressure, and therefore lower power. It’s up to Jain Irrigation to package the driplines, the pump, the panel, and other components.

In the future, Winter says he may move up to “larger system-scale challenges.” For example, he’s been puzzling over how to design and package multifaceted microinfrastructure for undeveloped villages that would bring together electricity generation, water delivery, sanitation, and more for a single village.

So far, GEAR Lab has started with a solar-powered water purification system in collaboration with Jain Irrigation. It’s a modest first step, but it could have a big impact on the quality of life of thousands, if not millions, of people.

Research News

July 21, 2014

More than glitter

A special class of tiny gold particles can easily slip through cell membranes, making them good candidates to deliver drugs directly to target cells.

A new study from MIT materials scientists reveals that these nanoparticles enter cells by taking advantage of a route normally used in vesicle-vesicle fusion, a crucial process that allows signal transmission between neurons. In the July 21 issue of Nature Communications, the researchers describe in detail the mechanism by which these nanoparticles are able to fuse with a membrane.

The findings suggest possible strategies for designing nanoparticles — made from gold or other materials — that could get into cells even more easily.

MIT Sloan
Management Review

July 14, 2014

For Service Businesses: Four Steps to Optimal Productivity

The title of an article in the Spring 2014 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review asks a provocative question: “Should Your Business Be Less Productive?

On the face of it, the answer should seem to be “no” — less productive is never good, right?

But authors Ming-Hui Huang and Roland T. Rust make an intriguing argument. They write, “As advanced economies move more into the service sector, that means many managers devote a lot of attention to designing automated processes that reduce the need for people — typically their most expensive resource.”

Huang and Rust’s argument, in a nutshell, is this: In service businesses, there is often a trade-off in customer satisfaction when companies go down the employee-reduction route. As a result, more productivity, when it comes at the cost of customer satisfaction, is not necessarily the best option. Bottom line: Instead of simply maximizing productivity at any and all costs, service companies should approach productivity as a strategic decision variable.

One example: Comcast Corp. The communications company increased its labor productivity by 11.4% from 2006 to 2007 and by another 10.9% from 2007 to 2008. Increased productivity on its own is good, but nothing ever happens on its own. The authors write: “Unfortunately, there were signs that customer satisfaction may have suffered. Comcast may have saved money by increasing its labor productivity, but its customer satisfaction score for subscription television services, as reported by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, fell between 2006 and 2008 and, by 2008, it was substantially below the industry average for that category.”

“The truth is that things are different in service, and unlike on the assembly line, increased productivity may not always lead to increased profitability,” they write.

So how can service companies figure out what level of productivity is optimal?

Huang and Rust offer four suggestions. The following text is taken verbatim from their article:
1. Compare your company with your competitors.

If your prices and margins are lower, and your employees have higher wages, then a higher productivity strategy is in order. Try to automate more than your competitors. If the opposite is true, focus on providing the best service in your industry, even at the expense of productivity. Where you can get higher satisfaction, use labor where other companies use automation.

2. Draw a graph, where one axis is customer satisfaction and the other axis is productivity.

Map your company and your competitors on this graph. Consider whether increasing customer satisfaction and sacrificing productivity (or vice versa) might effectively differentiate your company from your competitors, moving your market position away from that of your competition. This could mean adopting more of a high-productivity strategy or more of a high-customer-satisfaction strategy.

3. Think very carefully before outsourcing services, for example, through offshore call centers.

Seek evidence that the probable decline in customer satisfaction will be offset by increased productivity in labor dollars. If possible, run a test implementation to measure the effect on both customer satisfaction and productivity. Do return on investment analysis on the combined impact of the productivity improvement and customer satisfaction decline, to make sure the outsourcing is justified.

4. For all major automation decisions involving customer contact, carefully project the impact on customer satisfaction as well as the increase in productivity.

Again, a test implementation, or observing previous implementations by other companies (perhaps in other industries), can provide satisfaction impact data as well as productivity improvement and cost savings. This can enable a fully informed analysis of the resulting productivity-satisfaction trade-off.


This article draws from “Should Your Business Be Less Productive?” by Ming-Hui Huang (National Taiwan University’s College of Management) and Roland T. Rust (Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland), which appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.