Matthew 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.
Everyone’s getting in on the ‘improve the planet’ game. It’s fantastic. And who else to support such a thing than a company with plenty of money to give out: Google. Now 10 million is just a fraction of the bills Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook dished out to the Newark School System this week, but it is still fairly substantial.
But while Zuck gave a lot out quickly, Google’s Project 10^100 spent two years finding some worthy org’s. There are five on the list, but here’s the video results, followed by my two favorites:
1. I really like the Khan Academy. They’ve created a library of more than 1,600 teaching videos. Free to anyone, anywhere, Google has give the organization $2 million to enable more courses and in widely used languages. Hopefully users of our computer labs can take advantage of this!
2. Ok I admit, I’m a huge alternative transportation fan. I’m a bike nerd. I actually LIKE taking the DC Metro (I know, I’m weird), so my other favorite is the Schweeb. How can’t you love a name like that? Schweeb combines monorail technologies with those of the recumbent bicycle. It claims to be personal, efficient, and cost effective transportation. I hope it catches on!
Today I’m going to give you a little glimpse behind the scenes of Vort Port International. Here at Vort Port, we’re constantly communicating with each other via text, instant messaging, e-mail, and weekly conference calls. Sometimes we even give each other updates during our day jobs (don’t tell anyone).
While these updates and communications aren’t always regarding the most entertaining of subjects like accounting or IT problems, we do get updates from our man in the field, Raj Vable, every so often. And I’d like to share such an update today!
Raj is currently in India until September 10th, overseeing the construction of one of our solar-powered computer labs and gave us a progress report on Monday:
“I’ll be in india til next friday, the 10th -I’m headed to the village today. The [solar] panels are in India (hooray!) and getting cleared at customs (boooo). that should take a week, but I am very dubious, because everything here related to Gov’t drags on way longer than people say, and way longer than seems necessary.
While in the village, we’re going to decide on the computer replacements options and figure out how to get internet access. Also, a dude from SELCO (Harish Hande’s company) is supposed to come to the village to check out the school.
Also, I’m reading The Kite Runner. It’s so good.”
Two days later, Raj sends another update, this time with a slight hiccup in the plans:
Disappointing news: the solar panels aren’t actually in India. I just found out that apparently the container that was supposed to hold the solar panels reached Chennai, but the panels weren’t in it – they weren’t loaded from Singapore. So the panels are in Singapore, Chennai ETA Sept 12th, two days after I leave. Great.
Monday, I’m going with all the members of the trust to a company to discuss comptuer replacements. Also, the Trust says it will be very easy to get the school hooked up with internet acesss. All in all, a good day.”
What does this mean? Well, Raj won’t get to see the computer lab up and running before he leaves next week. Fortunately, he’s already laid the path and put in plenty of work to allow the locals and other people helping with the project to finish things up.
Regardless, Raj is definitely the linchpin in this project, and we’re very proud of the work he’s done! As our Executive Director Merry Walker told him, Raj has “paved the ground and others can walk on it towards a better life!!”
Raj has been taking plenty of photos, so hopefully we’ll get them up on the blog soon.
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