D-Lab Design

D-Lab: Design – What’s new for Spring 2018!

Promethean Power Systems, a manufacturer of refrigeration and cold-storage systems in India, founded by Sorin Grama.


D-Lab: Design, one of D-Lab's most popular classes, returns for the 16th year in a row!  This year, Jerome Arul and Sorin Grama, both practitioners who have designed, built and scaled products in emerging markets, will co-teach.


Jerome is an industrial designer with experience in manufacturing in China, Southeast Asia and East Africa. Jerome managed engineering and product design at EcoZoom, a cookstove company based in Nairobi and helped scale-up production for Africa’s largest cookstove program. Jerome also teaches product design at the Rhode Island School of Design and runs a fabrication shop in RI. 

Sorin is an electrical engineer who co-founded Promethean Power Systems, a manufacturer of refrigeration and cold-storage systems in India. Sorin was the principal inventor of Promethean’s thermal battery, an energy storage device that provides effective backup in areas with unpredictable grid power. The first application of this battery is to chill milk at village collection centers in rural India. Sorin is also one of the co-founders of Greentown Labs, a grassroots effort which has grown to become one of the nation’s largest cleantech incubators.

Sorin and Jerome embraced the product development process and applied it to their work. They are now ready to teach others how to do it through a combination of lectures, design sprints and a capstone design project!

For Spring 2018, we’ve got a variety of projects lined up where students could contribute by brainstorming original concepts and building early prototypes:


Kate Mytty found us an opportunity in Durban, South Africa to redesign commercial cookstoves for an urban marketplace that sells “mealies”, steamed ears of sweet corn. Currently, the mealies are steamed in simple 200 litre / 50 gl steel drums over an open wood fire, and there are potential solutions that are both cleaner and safer. 


On the biomedical front, students will have the opportunity to redesign a point-of-care device for lymphoma diagnosis in resource-limited settings. Scheduled for a clinical trial in Botswana this year, D3 Diagnostics is a holographic imaging technology that will address significant clinical needs in oncology and pathology. The device was built on the Raspberry PI 3, and has some great electromechanical features.


We have a couple of mobility of projects in the works as well. The Okoa ambulance, which first started at D-Lab: Design in Spring 2016, is back for an update! The whole ambulance could be taken to the next level, or we can dive into specific subsystem for optimization. There are also a few opportunities to redesign wheelchairs for rugged mobility or a rickshaw from a partnership with IIT. 


Looking at the environment, there are a couple of sensor devices that could use improvement. SoilSense is developing an affordable and robust soil sensor system, allowing farmers to reduce their water usage and increase their yield. They are starting a partnership in Peru, and are looking to tailor their device to avocado farmers there. We also have projects looking at air quality and water filtration.

D-Lab: Design course page

D-Lab: Design syllabus



Jerome Arul (left) and Sorin Grama (right), co-instructors D-Lab: Design 2018

Bamboo Bicycles Beijing! Report from a 2017 D-Lab UGC Fieldwork Grant recipient

By David Wang, D-Lab UGC Fieldwork Grant Recipient

The core team at Bamboo Culture Park Summer 2017.


Learning about the bamboo curing process to remove sugars and pests from the culms.


Teaching bike mechanics to middle school students in the countryside outside of Beijing.


Teaching Teacher Liu to make his own bamboo bicycle. The Bamboo Culture Park plans to make 30 bamboo bikes for visitors to bike around the village and surrounding area.


Karen with her flashy bamboo bike she made for herself in Beijing. Karen will continue onto Japan where she will teach English and possibly run a bamboo bike workshop on Awaji Island.


“The summer in Taiwan and Beijing flashed by, but what we accomplished seemed like it should’ve taken years: we established a Taiwan-based community workshop, built 20+ bamboo bicycles in Beijing, and taught 400+ students how to assemble their own bikes!”

“Guess what is the primary use of industrial bamboo in Taiwan?” Teacher Chen asked. As one of the leading experts of bamboo in Taiwan, Teacher Chen had initially earned his renown as an artist carving beautiful designs into the sides of bamboo crafts. Over the past 20 years, he established and developed The Bamboo Culture Park in Zhushan Village (literally meaning “bamboo mountain village”). His bamboo center hosts hundreds of species of bamboo, several bamboo buildings (designed and made locally), and every bamboo product you can imagine. From architecture to light fixtures to beds to sheets to shampoo to ice cream to back scratchers – if you could imagine it, Teacher Chen probably has it at his Bamboo Culture Park. However, today we had left his bamboo compound to explore the neighboring bamboo companies, and looking around the bamboo stockyard we were standing in, I had no idea which product was the primary product of Zhushan.

With the help of the MIT Undergraduate Fund and a D-Lab UGC Fieldwork Grant, our Bamboo Bicycles Beijing team had arrived in Taiwan to set up a bamboo bike workshop in this village and to learn more about bamboo crafts. Bamboo Bicycles Beijing has been a project client for students in two MIT classes, D-Lab: Design and D-Lab: Mobility, and we were working on how to not only make better bicycles but also how to help set-up community bamboo bicycle workshops. David Wang (MIT 2018), Karen Lee (Stanford 2017), Andrea Zhu (Brown 2017), and Marshall Cao (Hampshire College 2019), had spent a time researching how to set up bamboo bike workshops so that it would help feed back into the community. This was our chance to give it a shot in Zhushan, Taiwan before we headed to the Beijing workshop.

For this to be the primary market for Taiwan’s bamboo seems quite incongruous with its past. Taiwan has a vast tradition of bamboo industry which has included all kinds of crafts, architecture, and foods. Yet, in recent decades, both the market and national policies have pushed the material to the fringe of the economy. Zhushan Village has suffered as its craftspeople struggle to keep up with an increasingly online marketplace, production of metals and plastics offers easier standardization for mass production, and the cultural aesthetic has moved away from this fast-growing grass. While recently bamboo has been heralded as a highly-renewable, carbon-negative material, Mr. Chen and his organization face a considerable challenge to upgrade their “bamboo mountain village” into a production and cultural center that is immediately relevant to today’s consumers and manufacturers. With 20 years of dedication to bringing bamboo back to the forefront, Teacher Chen has not yet overcome this challenge.

We hoped that we could use the summer working with The Bamboo Culture Park working to develop a new strategy for the village that would begin to resonate with the younger generation of both consumers, designers, and employees. After taking stock of the immense  intellectual assets in Zhushan, it became clear the challenge was to change the paradigm by which these assets create value for the community. Whereas previously local craftspeople closely guarded their fabrication techniques, today’s economy requires openness and agile communication. Rather than having closed workshops that discourage people to visit and follow Zhushan, we developed a strategy that would make this bamboo mecca more visible and open to the rest of the country.

We developed a social media strategy that catered to a younger generation that is interested in “DIY” and experiential consumption by teaching bamboo bicycle making. With their decades of bamboo craftsmanship, they learned to make a bamboo bicycle extremely fast. With their expertise, we began setting up an open DIY bamboo bike workshop at the Bamboo Culture Park. Mr. Liu would be responsible for teaching people to make bamboo bicycles. The team planned to build 30 bamboo bikes and begin involving local materials, craftspeople, and tools to see if this could turn into a community spark that would spur more opening up about the village’s abundant resource and depth knowledge. We left Taiwan feeling optimistic that bamboo will be used for more than banana tree poles as the community begins opening up to a new kind of market.

After establishing the workshop in Zhushan, the team traveled to the client’s base workshop in Beijing where everyone made their own bamboo bicycle and participated in leading bike mechanic workshops for youth in the countryside outside Beijing. In addition, we held regular bamboo bicycle community events in which we helped to share how bamboo bikes are made by individuals using a local material, not by factories using carbon-intense materials from far away. Andrea spent a great deal of time interviewing Beijing’s diverse bamboo bicycle community makers and published an anthology through BBB. Karen spent time developing a “How to Pack You Bike” guidebook for the many bamboo bike makers in Beijing who want to take their bikes on planes. And, David and Marshall spent most of their time helping school children learn to assemble their own bikes. The summer in Taiwan and Beijing flashed by, but what we accomplished seemed like it should’ve taken years: we established a Taiwan-based community workshop, built 20+ bamboo bicycles in Beijing, and taught 400+ students how to assemble their own bikes!

We’re very appreciative to MIT UGC and MIT D-Lab for allowing the whole team to have these adventures, and we look forward to returning as soon as possible!


Emily Young '18: New Prototype of the Okoa Ambulance in Tanzania

by Emily Young '18

Building the prototype at Twende with the help of Bernard Kiwia and Athumani.

The team with the prototype.


Testing out the prototype in Mswiswi.


The first prototype from Spring 2016.


Hiking with the kids at The Olive Branch.


Rural villages in Tanzania and other developing countries are often miles from medical care facilities. Due to cost and road conditions, locals do not own vehicles equipped to transport a person with a medical emergency for long distances. We are trying to fill this gap. Our solution is to create a motorcycle ambulance with a dynamic attachment mechanism to fit onto any motorcycle in the area. This January, I went to Tanzania with three other undergraduates, Sade Nabahe '17, Jimmie Harris '17, and Mitch Turley '18, to implement our design and do more research on understanding the full scope of the project.

Our team formed in the course D-Lab: Design in spring of 2016 to work with a Tanzanian organization called The Olive Branch for Children to increase access to healthcare services in rural villages. We have been working with them remotely to design a phase one prototype at MIT, and were lucky enough to get a UGC D-Lab Fieldwork Grant to continue this project in the field. While we were in Tanzania, we had a goal to rebuild the motorcycle ambulance with the help of the organization we had been working with. Through introductions from D-Lab, we were able to work with many more Tanzanian people and organiztions.

Upon arriving, we headed to Arusha to meet up with MIT alumnus Elliot Avila '14, who founded a company Imara Tech currently developing a motorized multicrop thresher (a project that evolved in D-Lab classes and through two D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowships). We stayed with him and worked at the social innovation organization called Twende, which was an incredible experience. Twende is an entrepreneurial accelerator created by Jim Elsworth and Bernard Kiwia, that offers business help and fabrication inspiration to growing businesses. Being able to rebuild our prototype at Twende was more than we could have asked for — we had an incredible arsenal of creative minds and expert fabricators to bring our ambulance into existence.

Once the ambulance was built, we had to say our goodbyes and head down south to Mbeya to finally meet our partners at The Olive Branch. We were greeted with open arms by Deborah McCracken, her husband Putiyei, and their incredible children (of which there are many!). While in Mbeya, we were able to experience the rural villages’ lack of access to healthcare first hand, as well as test our prototype on the roads that would be taken to the hospital. We could not have been luckier to have such supportive partners while we were there to take us places and teach us things we would never have been able to experience otherwise. While we were there we also named our device the Okoa Ambulance, Okoa meaning “to save” in Swahili. After coming home from a long day of work doing field testing and user interviews, nothing was better than seeing all of the kids at The Olive Branch who made our trip infinitely better. I think it is safe to say that the best part of our trip, both in Mbeya and Arusha, were the friends that we gained along the way. 

Now that we have arrived back in the United States, we are determined to continue this project and see it through. We were all very moved by interest in our device while we were in Tanzania, and intend to pursue this project over the course of the next year at least. This spring, we are applying to the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, as well as more funding opportunities to improve the design in the areas that we saw were weak, and push for solidifying the parts that were successful. Being able to travel to Tanzania to make this project a reality was an incredible and life changing experience, and we hope to make an impact with the opportunities that we have been given.

Straw Chopper

150 Projects Tags: 
The market for mushrooms in India is steadily growing. Mushrooms are grown in media made from rice straw, a common waste product for Assamese farmers. Students are designing an affordable device to chop the straw is easier to use than the existing machines.

Moringa Seed Sheller

150 Projects Tags: 
Moringa is an exceptionally nutritious plant grown in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Oil can be extracted from moringa seeds and has a number of beneficial uses. The seeds come in a shell; removing the shell can give higher yield of oil using a simple press. Students are currently designing an inexpensive moringa shelling machine.
New Longoro

Urine Separating Toilet Seat

Composting toilets are currently expensive, but offer a promising alternative to pit latrines and have several advantages, among them the separation of urine from feces minimizes smell and allows the two to be used separately for fertilizer. Students are designing a process for locally manufacturing a urine separating toilet seat in Ghana.

Plastic Bottle Chipper

150 Projects Tags: 
Waste pickers, known as catadores in Brazil, earn a living collecting and selling recyclables from the trash. Intermediaries that granulate plastic bottles into flakes sell it to industry and capture 75% of the value. A low-cost human-powered plastic chipper could help catadores co-ops to maximize their profits.
Sao Paulo


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