A subway commuter digs through his backpack to find his iPad. A college student lugs a bag of dirty clothes to the laundry room in her dorm. A rushed Starbucks customer tears open a paper sugar packet.
This semester, 11 teams of MIT and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) students — all enrolled in a course called “Product Design and Development” — sought to ameliorate these challenging everyday moments. As the culmination of the course, on Saturday, May 12, these teams presented their products to a panel of product development professionals.
While more and more people are choosing iPads and other tablets for their portable size, it’s not always convenient or safe to use them in public. One team — sponsored by outdoor outfitter Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) — came up with a backpack that holds a tablet in a zippered, padded compartment designed so that users can remove the tablet without removing the backpack. Andrew Erickson, an MIT senior in mechanical engineering, demonstrated a key safety feature of the team’s “EMS Tablet Pack.”
“Someone tries to grab it out of your hand, or you drop it: ‘Oh no!’” Erickson said as he dropped the tablet — but a lanyard connecting it to the backpack caught the device before it hit the floor. For greater ease of access and security in public places, the team also designed the EMS Tablet Pack to fold open from the bottom so the tablet can be used in a laptop position.
Another team sought to improve the lives of college students and laundromat users with a new laundry hamper dubbed the Kangalau. “We wanted it to be subtle and very comfortable,” said RISD student Beth Soucy. With a divider inside for sorting laundry, mesh holes for air-drying, pockets for detergent and loose change, and a tall rectangular structure one user called “just as comfortable as a normal backpack,” the Kangalau also has “environmental benefits because it’s durable and recyclable,” Soucy said.
Sustainability with profit
Making a profit doesn’t have to come at the expense of the environment, as the Kangalau team found. But some projects had an environmental focus from the start.
According to the team that created the Sucrosity Sugar Dispenser, paper sugar packets create more than a million pounds of waste each day. “That is completely ridiculous and we want that eliminated from coffee shops and cafes,” said Daniela Kretchmer, a Sloan graduate student. Ashley Ko, a fellow team member from RISD, demonstrated the dispenser’s ability to dispense an exact amount of sugar — equivalent to half a sugar packet — with the turn of a knob, saving paper while still allowing customers to measure how much they’re putting in. The team tested the design at a local Starbucks, said Neha Dave, an MIT graduate student in mechanical engineering. Customers there liked the device because it’s easy to use, she said; employees liked it because it makes less of a mess.
The GM UCharge team, sponsored by General Motors, came up with an improved design for electric vehicle charging stations. “In the electric vehicle space, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem,” said Erick Corona, a graduate student in the Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) Program. “People don’t purchase electric vehicles because there’s not enough infrastructure.” The team created a docking system whose charger handle can slide along a metal rail to service multiple parking spots, adding a revolving cord to the handle to make it even easier to use.
Two teams had good news for bicyclists: You can keep your bike illuminated and your phone charged as you ride with the Lumos Bike Light System, and then secure the bike with the Viper Bike Lock — which is just as secure as a traditional U-lock, its creators say, but can be attached with one hand, saving time and effort.
The Lumos Bike Light System includes a small charging station with magnets inside that clamps to the rear wheel of the bike. “We’re using magnetic induction to create power,” said Madalyn Berns, an MIT graduate student in mechanical engineering. As the bicyclist pedals, the magnets spin, inducing an electric current in a series of coils that the device uses to power the light system. The charging station has a USB port for an electronic device and connects to a front-mounted bike light to keep it powered.
Engineering and designing a better world
Other products included:
- the BuzzyBaby Child Carrier System, a baby harness that parents can choose to clip either into a stroller or onto themselves;
- the GM Kid-Friendly Back Seat, a portable case with a drawing surface and iPad to entertain kids on car rides;
- EMS Hiking Furniture, a lightweight and collapsible seat for hikers;
- CarryOne luggage, a combined laptop case and carry-on suitcase; and
- Wet Impact Drinking Fountain, a water fountain that informs users via a solar-powered display how much CO2 they have offset by avoiding bottled water.
At the conclusion of the presentations, the three instructors of the course — MIT professors Steven Eppinger and Warren Seering, as well as Matthew Kressy, who holds joint appointments at MIT and RISD — congratulated the students on their projects and on the collaboration between two very different schools. Over the course of the spring semester, 19 RISD students made the drive from Providence to Cambridge twice a week to attend the class, which also included about 30 engineering and 30 management students from MIT. Some of the teams have already applied for patents on their products.
“I think we saw 11 viable business products today,” said Eppinger, the General Motors LGO Professor of Management at Sloan. “Each of you brings a different perspective, but none of you has all the skills that it takes to create any one of these products. I’m not sure you knew that at the start of the semester.”
“At the beginning of the term, it was pretty easy to tell which schools you were all from,” added Seering, the Weber-Shaughness Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Systems at MIT. “It looks to us like you’ve learned to think in new ways.”
“Science and engineering are very good at quantifying what is,” said Kressy, a lecturer in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division and an adjunct faculty member in industrial design at RISD. “But they’re not so good at figuring out what could be — that’s where art and design come in.” The collaboration between the two institutions and their respective disciplines, Kressy said, “will eventually, I hope, lead to a better world.”