VPI Member Spotlight: Matt Ford

ImageMatthew Ford is a design engineer with Vort Port International’s Solaii (formerly India Solar Lamps) project. A native of South Carolina, he earned both his Bachelor and Master of Science in Engineering degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. During his senior year of college Ford took an industrial design course, and it was a project that involved designing for the dollar-a-day customer that sparked his interest in sustainable technology — something that until this point he had not given much thought to.

“I quickly learned why people call it ‘essential design’,” Ford said. “Designing for essential needs is the most basic, but at the same time complex, design problem. It shares all of the processes behind creating the things that make our lives convenient, such as securing investment capital, user research, manufacturing, marketing, etc., but the stakes are so much higher. The possibility to make real and lasting positive changes to peoples’ lives, coupled with the magnitude of the scalability, is both fascinating and inspiring.”

Before joining VPI in August 2012, Ford did pro-bono design work for a project serving farmers in Tanzania. In an effort to ease the burden of head-carrying water, the team built, shipped, and sold 1,000 pushcarts. This provided Ford his first experience working with overseas manufacturers and iterating through a design process with multiple pilot tests.

“Hearing the stories of our customers was inspiring, and it was a great start to reading up on international development. Everyone has an opinion about how to alleviate poverty, so it was helpful to get a sense for various attempts and outcomes.”

As with any successful endeavor, being able to think outside the box is crucial to the product design process — a point that was driven home for Ford while working in Tanzania. The pushcart team knew that the cart would be useless with a flat tire or a wheel that fell apart, and since the wheel was the most expensive component, they brainstormed to come up with an easy replacement scheme.

“Early in the project we were considering and testing all sorts of crazy ideas,” Ford explains.  “At one point it occurred to us that there were tons of old two-liter soda bottles in the urban areas, so we thought we could pressurize these and bind them to use as wheel hubs, since a pressurized bottle is nearly rock hard. We ran all the calculations to see what the strains and stresses on the bottle would be at various pressures and calculated how much dry ice we’d need to pressurize them. We then ran a series of load tests on the system, which consisted of repeatedly throwing 40-pound water jugs on dry-ice pressurized wheel hubs. Not exactly how I had imagined using my engineering degree!”

The team soon realized that dry ice was far too expensive, and that pressurizing bottles was dangerous. But they did find another solution — using recycled bike tires lashed to a steel spoke frame — which was both economical and safe.

Experiences such as this help Ford in his current role with VPI’s Solaii project, where he does mechanical and industrial design. His main task is to establish design requirements (based on prior design/field research) and translate those to a mechanical design that satisfies the specifications. He works with manufacturing and electrical engineers on the team to ensure all the pieces fit together and to help move the project into production. Currently he is making revisions to the design and preparing to build another functional prototype for testing, which will hopefully take place this fall. He also hopes to visit the sites in India once the team has completed its first production run.

Ford is looking forward to creating a product that will make positive and lasting changes to the quality of life in the communities Solaii serves. “I really enjoy meeting people who share my interests and learning from their experiences in development, but  overall I want to work on projects that make life better for people today, as well as those who will follow tomorrow.”

By day Ford works as a biomechanical engineer focusing on advanced materials research, specifically trying to understand injury mechanisms using physical and computational models, and apply those insights to develop better protective equipment. He has also designed sustainable housewares using the Kickstarter platform, and is currently experimenting with how to use graphic design and visual communication to make the chaotic news cycle more approachable (visit www.theshapeofnews.com for more information.) He is also the unofficial social secretary for VPI, organizing a monthly happy hour which gives the DC-based volunteers a chance to interact face-to-face.

Whether sketching out designs, collaborating with the Solaii team on conference calls, or bringing his fellow volunteers together at happy hour, VPI would like to thank Matt Ford for his many contributions to the team.

Vort Port International’s (VPI) Solaii project works to help the rural communities of India climb back on the economic ladder through effective solar lamp technology and smart business models, while reducing the environmental and human health hazards of kerosene lighting. For more information or to find out how you can contribute to this project please visit http://www.vortport.com/our-projects/solar-lamps/.

This blog post was written by Susan Patterson, Marketing and Branding Specialist for Vort Port International.

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