Amos Winter's lab at MIT contained an underwater digging robot, prototypes of prosthetic feet, water purification systems, and a kerosene pump stripped apart. “Just mechanical widgets and things all over the place,” as Winter describes it during our chat. But the work that sets his lab apart happens far away from MIT's campus, in India.
India is where Winter developed an all-terrain wheelchair, and it's the country that acts as a real-world laboratory for him and 10 graduate students at his Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab. “You look at a consumer in India, and that consumer earns a different income, has a different culture, lives in a different physical area,” says Winter. “We try to capture those factors and combine it with the engineering theory to create low-cost, high-impact technologies.”
First, Winter identifies a topic; current ones include prosthetics, irrigation, water purification, and diesel engines. Next, he identifies a big company in the existing market. For drip irrigation, he connected with the massive company Jain Irrigation Systems.
“All the projects that I’m doing, there exists usually a Western world solution,” says Winter. “We’re trying to meet and exceed the performance of that solution, but at a tenth or a hundredth of the price.”
Drip irrigation systems are a great way of reducing water use, but they require a connection to a reliable energy grid--or a solar-power set-up that costs from $3,000 to $5,000. The best prosthetic knees are a more dramatic version of the same story: They’re a huge improvement over locked-joint, developing-world peg-legs, but they involve onboard computers and cost around $50,000.
Instead, Winter hones in on what he calls the “technological keystones”: the engineering problems that, if solved, could make a simple, cheap, mechanical solution possible. For prosthetic legs, it’s the knee (and understanding how it works when a lower leg is replaced by something much lighter). For drip irrigation, it’s the pump, which makes up 80% of the cost of the system. The difficult mechanical problem in that case is figuring out how to make a pump work with less--and less stable--water pressure.
Projects only move to the MIT lab after identifying the core engineering problem. (Winter says his grad students are “on site” in different parts of India every six months, for a total of four to six weeks a year.) The process is messy; it involves a lot of analogy and experimentation. For making a cheap pressure-regulating pump, Winter and his team have pursued paths based on other physical systems, like lungs, roots, and party balloons. “Like when you blow up a rubber party ballon and you let it go in the air and it goes THTBTHTBT all over the place,” Winter explains. “That resonance actually restricts the air flow.”
Winter says the team has a prototype that produces the low flows that they been seeking, though it may take another year or two to create a package that's ready for real-world use at a viable price-point. The ball will then be back in the court of Jain Irrigation Systems, which is sponsoring the irrigation research, and will have the right to an exclusive license to the resulting intellectual property--a license which will require the company to make an effort to put the product on the market.
I asked Winter if the model of partnering with established corporations ever resulted in awkward conflicts. If business is good, would a big company want a disruptive, cheaper product? His perspective: Companies like Jain are in the perfect position to bring a new product to market. “They already have the distribution channels, they have the local reps talking to the farmers,” says Winter.
The ability to hand over commercialization also means Winter and his team of engineers can focus on engineering. “Academia is not typically good at going from prototype to product,” says Winter. “And that process ... is often 80%, 90% of the effort.”