Daniel Frey

Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Systems

D-Lab: transforming the world through practical solutions

D-Lab: transforming the world through practical solutions

Daniel Frey’s work in design, experimentation and decision-making enables D-Lab to address problems of poverty in the developing world.

By: Bernadette Esposito

Daniel Frey, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, faculty director of D-Lab (Development through Discovery, Design and Dissemination), Co-Director of Experimental Design Research in the SUTD-MIT International Design Center, and Faculty Advisor for Suitability Research at CITE, began his career as a designer. Working in upper limb prosthetics and manufacturing systems, he made prototypes and drafted patents, did technology development and product development, and as he pursued a PhD, he thought it would be interesting to abstract. “I became really interested in the question of how experiments are used by designers,” says Frey.

Faculty Director of D-Lab

Named faculty director of D-Lab in July 2016, Frey’s work in design, experimentation and decision-making are integral to the work D-Lab does in the developing world: designing solutions, doing experiments and helping people make decisions about what technologies to adopt. Since 2002, D-Lab has established a strong reputation within MIT and abroad for being effective at finding practical interventions, and especially for working with people in the community to conceive of those interventions, to scale them up and to address problems related to poverty in the developing world. “I’ve been focused lately on technology evaluation,” says Frey. “Taking an array of products and technologies that have been proposed for addressing a problem like clean water or off-grid lighting, going out into the field, understanding their use pattern, evaluating available options in the marketplace, and bringing them into the lab to understand their performance.”


Among the interventions Frey is working on, one seeks to offer surgery in austere settings where there are no available operating rooms and where the risks for on-site surgical infections are high. “We’ve been working on this idea of keeping a small region around the operating site highly sterile,” says Frey. “To build locally a kind of clear tent, one that can handle the air, so you keep things like flies out, and one that has access, like sleeves, so the surgeon can get in there and do the cutting and suturing.” In problem-solving interventions, questions arise. “Which particular formulation of plastic would be better, or how might we best make the seams? Should the tent have a frame or should it rely on pressure to keep the plastic up? We try to work with our partners at Mass General to make a product that’s practical, that you can get through the regulatory process and that we can scale at a reasonable cost,” says Frey.

In a study of wheelchairs in Indonesia the same kind of problem-solving questions arise. “A big part of our evaluation of the wheelchairs, for example, will be installing instrumentation to gain information on the kind of loading history it experienced,” says Frey. “Did it hit a curb? How frequently? How hard? What are the challenges of managing the power source? What are the things you can do onboard so you don’t have to log all the data, but process and save the good bits? Are there opportunities to load up the data while the wheelchair is in the field? Can we put that data on the cloud? Or, in some cases, should we just log it and go visit the product again? These are some things we’re becoming knowledgeable about.”

I’ve worked on characterizing the conditions under which factors in design can be changed independently, one-at-a-time, and the conditions under which it’s better to plan a block of experiments in which the factors are changed simultaneously from one to the next.

Another example of the challenges faced in rural settings involves the solution for sterilizing instruments, typically resolved by putting them in an autoclave. Some of the clinics, Frey says, don’t have reliable power, and it would be better to use the fuels available to get high temperatures needed for sterilization. Although it’s been known for a long time that a simple pressure cooker will do the job, often the results are not satisfactory and do not meet the requirements of the World Health Organization. “So, we devised a pressure-cooker that had some electronics on it. We would monitor pressure as a proxy for temperature, make adjustments for altitude and give a display to the user that they had met the requirements,” he says.

Dan Frey
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SUTD-MIT International Design Center

In concert with the mission of D-Lab, Singapore University of Technology and Design SUTD-MIT International Design Center, where Frey is co-director of experimental design research, also strives to improve conditions in the developing world. Collaborating with the Ministry of Education in Singapore, the center sought to be research intensive. “This doesn’t happen by itself,” says Frey. Starting a new university means it can evolve toward teaching well, but leave very little time for the faculty to follow their curiosity and make an impact through sponsored research. The answer to that was The International Design Center, a multidisciplinary community of faculty, research, labs, and students from across all five schools at MIT. “We picked a few themes in which we would implement designs, and one of those was the developing world—so that’s a link to D-LAB. Then, there are themes that cut across different applications, which are methodological. One of those is experimental design and that’s the one I lead,” says Frey.

Frey works on questions of design and experimentation. “For example, I’ve worked on characterizing the conditions under which factors in design can be changed independently, one-at-a-time, and the conditions under which it’s better to plan a block of experiments in which the factors are changed simultaneously from one to the next,” says Frey.


The Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE), funded by USAID, focuses on developing methodologies that can help organizations and individuals evaluate a product’s suitability, scalability, and sustainability. Suitability is technology evaluation from a user’s perspective. It’s what consumer reports does. Is this dishwasher suitable for cleaning dishes in your kitchen? In some cases, the products being evaluated are just prototypes, or maybe only 100 of them exist. Therefore, unlike consumer reports, there is a need to assess whether an emerging technology has potential to scale. “We also look at products through the lens of sustainability. We want to understand that even if the product can do something valuable for the consumer, even if it can be scaled to tens of thousands of units, might there not be some unintended consequences that would cause them to be unsustainable?” says Frey. CITE had its origins within D-Lab.  In fact, a D-Lab member named Derek Brine led the proposal development. Right now, the products being evaluated include systems for solar powered irrigation, means for cooling and storing vegetables, and bags that reduce insect infestation during transport of food aid. “If you take the MIT motto, Mens-et-manus, and bring it to bear in the developing world, that to me is what D-LAB is,” says Frey. “Getting students engaged in the process of using their minds and their hands. What we have found at MIT is when students get a taste for this, it is transformational for them. We see the lights go on in their heads and we think it’s worth preserving and worth expanding.”