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    Friday
    Mar162012

    THE WORKSHOP: Designing Robots For the Bottom Billion

    Product designer David Klaus writes from the workshop...

     

    It’s a pretty safe bet that if I asked rural farmers in Myanmar to make a list of their top ten needs, robots wouldn’t make the cut.  Yet, as I type this, my desk is peppered with various robotic components, and a glance through the window into our product testing area reveals three of my teammates assembling and testing, well. . . a robot. 

    What on earth are we doing?

    We began our fixation with robots back in 2009 during the development of the Sin Pauk, our first plastic pump. We wanted a cheaper pump and plastic appealed for many reasons. However, all of our pumps to date had been made of steel, and we had little experience with a different medium.  Knowing the average farmer step on his pump 900,000 times a year, durability is key and our greatest fear was creating a product that, while working great in our design lab, mysteriously failed a few months after being set up in the field. Given its inferior strength to steel, our decision to commit to plastic was gutsy, and we needed to seriously test our designs before shipping them to stores. In the big push to upgrade our testing abilities that followed, the TreadleBot was born.

    An inexhaustible pair of robotic legs, the TreadleBot can step on new pump designs all day, every day. Any time we designed a plastic mold and got our first sample parts back, we would give them to the TreadleBot and during the course of the pump’s development, our robot put over 1.5 million cycles on various pump prototypes.

    As it did, we noticed how parts began to break.  In particular, we noticed one plastic part that tended to break after a few hundred thousand cycles. It would have made it through most workshop tests, but it couldn’t fool the TreadleBot, meaning we were able to replace it before a single bad part found its way into the hands of our customers.

    It’s a product that farmers will never buy, never even know about; an invisible product that only a handful of us will ever use.

    Yet, it’s become one of our most valuable investments.

    It’s a champion for something that’s critical for the success of any innovative endeavor: honesty.  It is not impressed by our brilliant ideas or idealism.  It grinds through prototypes with an astounding impartiality.  It does not give us extra gold stars for our socially-minded motives.  It demands results. And it helps us to deliver them.

    So while you may not get too many farmers asking for robots in their top ten list, I suspect that if you suggested “products that don’t disappoint you,” many of them would first laugh and say to you: “What?  You mean that’s even an option?”  And then they’d give you a big grin and say, “Absolutely.  Sign me up.”

     

     

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