E91: Amos Winter, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT – Interview

January 26, 2017


This interview is with Amos Winter. Amos has great energy and is changing how products and inventions help developing countries. It’s inspiring.

Amos is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. He is the Director of the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab. His main focus is coming up with innovative ideas, designs and then implementing them in developing countries.

His current projects are fascinating: prosthetic knee, prosthetic foot, solar powered desalination systems, drip irrigation systems, turbocharged engines and small scale tractors. And remember he’s building these technologies to be affordable and usable across developing countries.

In this interview we talk a lot about his drip irrigation system. I never knew drip irrigation is so interesting and crucial for worldwide agriculture.

Amos received his Masters in 2005 and PhD in Mechanical Engineering in 2010 from MIT.

He’s won a number of awards for his innovative wheelchair and gave a TED talk about how it works.

Here are some other things we talk about:

-How does thinking about a system in a developing country affect the innovations of Amos and his team?
-How did Amos and his team develop the drip irrigation system? It’s development from the ground up.
-How could Amos’ drip irrigation system change agriculture?
-How can the corporate partner for the drip irrigation system make a large amount of money selling it in developing countries?
-How do Amos and his team get feedback from their users?

David Kruse: Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of Flyover Labs and today we get to talk to Amos Winter. Amos is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT and there he is the Director of the Global Engineering and Research Lab and essentially he comes up with innovative ideas and designs for developing countries, which is probably a little too simply put, but we’ll get into it more. So his current projects are quite fascinating, so get ready for these; they are prosthetic knee, prosthetic foot, a solar-powered desalination system, a DRIP Irrigation System, Turbo Charged Engines and small scale tractors. And so remember he is building these technologies to be affordable and usable across the world. So Amos received his PhD in Mechanical Engineering 2010 from MIT and he has won a number of awards, especially for his innovative wheelchair that he gave a TED Talk on, which is a great talk, which we will post a link to, so let’s get into it. So Amos, thanks for joining us today.

Amos Winter: Thanks for having me Dave.

David Kruse: Yes definitely. So before we get into it, can you kind of give us your background. I’m curious how you became interested in developing products and equipment for the rest of the world?

Amos Winter: Yeah, well I’m trained as a mechanical engineer through and through. All my degrees are mechanical engineering and I got interested in developing world technology while I was in graduate school. I was dating a woman at the time who was doing a year on fellowship in Tanzania. The summer after I finished my masters, I wanted to go spend that with her in Tanzania and I was willing to do really anything technology related. I didn’t really care just so long as I was in Tanzania and I fell into this situation where I was doing a wheel chair assessment for a group in the U.S. Whirlwind Wheelchair International, which designs wheelchairs for developing countries and an organization in Tanzania that goes by the acronym TAPSCOTT and I can’t remember what that stands for, but it’s an orthopedic training program where they thought people how to make wheelchairs and set up their own workshops. And so what those organizations wanted was an assessment of how well interesting technology was meeting people’s needs and what sort of technology was out there in the market spare. So I spent a summer interviewing wheelchair users and wheelchair manufactures and disability advocacy groups, trying to get a lay of the Land and what came out of that was an insight into – that there was a gap in the technology space, particularly for people who lived in rural areas of developing countries. So if you look, you know globally there is about 60 million, 40 to 60 million people that need wheelchair, but don’t have one and about 70% of those people are going to live in rural areas of developing counties and if you try to imaging going maybe 2 miles a day from your house to your school or your job using a regular conventional wheelchair on like a rough road or even like a footpath, it’s incredibly hard and its difficult and then most people wouldn’t physical be able to do it. So during that first summer I started seeing the need for this mobility aid that could long distances, fast and efficiently on rough terrain and be used small or used indoors and be small enough like a normal wheelchair and that product didn’t exist yet and those requirements eventually led to the creation of the Leverage Freedom Chair, which is the Lever Powered off of Wheelchair that I talked about in the TED Talk that you mentioned in the intro.

David Kruse: And everyone should see this wheelchair. I mean it’s – yeah, like you mentioned the levers and the name, like that’s quite ingenious and so that’s why I was really curious to interview you. And I don’t know – we don’t have to talk about that project. I’m curious on kind of what you are working on now too and everybody can go watch the TED Talk, but no that’s a really good background for everyone, and so – and we can talk about that project, unless you have another kind of one of your favorite projects that you are working on now that we could talk about and kind of dive into the details, it would be interesting.

Amos Winter: Sure, yeah you know. Before we do that I’ll add a little bit more about how I came to running a research group that focuses on technologies for developing in emerging markets. So my background and my training through undergrad and graduate school was primarily in I would say more conventional engineering science. I focused on machine design and I – my PhD was making a robotic system that could dig into underwater soils, using very little energy and very quickly. And so you know I got this I think more conventional technology research experience in my PhD and then on the side throughout grad school I was working on wheelchair technology in developing countries and I got a lot of experience working on the ground, partnering with stake holders, testing prototypes and context and so when I applied for my job, the division that I pitched was what if we ran a hardcore engineering science research group that worked in developing and emerging markets to create technologies for that space. And as far as the motivation for doing this, if you looking throughout the developing world, there is still problems related to technology like clean water and sanitation and maternal health that affect millions to billions of people often in life or death ways and they are still not solved. And so what better foundation could you ask for for research in making an impact with that research and so that’s what created the core tenants of my research group and what we do is a lot of social economic and technical detective work in developing and emerging markets to understand people’s needs, understand the needs for new technologies and then we reflect on those findings from an engineering perspective, use engineering science and research in order to create the high performance, low cost technologies that are demanded by emerging markets. And what we also try to do is keep an eye on what if we created a high performance low cost solution, what would that look like back in wealth country? Could we disrupt wealthy markets with these solutions? So we try, even thought we are motivated and targeted on poor countries, we really try to keep an eye on the global market opportunities for disseminating our technology.

David Kruse: That’s a good way to look at it. And so do you have a currently project that you are especially interested in? Well, I guess you are excited about all of them, but is there on that you want to talk about now or we can talk about the wheelchair one too?

Amos Winter: Well I think, you know let’s take our drip irrigation technology. I think that’s a good example of what we do in our group. So about four years ago we started working with the second largest drip irrigation company in the world called Jain Irrigation, they are based in India and if you are not familiar with DRIP irrigation, what it is, is it’s a means of watering plants where you just drip out the exact amount of water the plant needs. So you minimize water loss to evaporation in drainage and by doing this you can reduce water consumption by about 60% compared to conventional irrigation methods of just flooding the field between the months. So this technology has a great potential for water savings, which is particularly important in a country like India which is quickly running out of water, and as fast as like a developing motivation international development, irrigating land is one of the most high impact interventions you can do with poor subsistence farmers in the developing world, because they can grow more crops and we can get more money and rise out of poverty. And there is about a half billon farms around the developing world that farm just a few acres and live off subsistence farming. So we started talking to Jain about this challenge and they are going after it both for the humanitarian impact, but also because of the incredibly huge market potential when you are trying to engage half a billion current non- consumers, right huge, huge untapped market. So what I had to do was start down this detective process of understanding, okay Jain, you have shown us this amazing opportunity, why can’t you achieve it, what are the barriers in your way? And so as we dug into this we found that when you try to engage these poor farmers, most of them live off the electrical grid and when you try to make DRIP irrigation work off the grid it becomes exorbitantly expensive, about $3000 per acre is what the capital cost is and in – we are trying to target farmers that make a few hundred dollars a year. So working with Jain I understood from a physics and engineering perspective, what drives that capital cost is the amount of power you need to pump the water through the system. And what determines the pumping power is the pressure required to, that is applied to the drip emitters in order for them to emit the correct flow rate of water, so you get a uniform distribution of water in the field. So by diving into the physics and getting this perspective of the physics, we understood that boy, if we could cut the pressure required on the dripper, we can proportionately then cut the power required and it turned out, so the figures are actually if we could cut the pressure by about 10 times to the dripper, it would cut the overall pressure in the system by half, because you still have filters and piping and all the stuff that covers pressure drop. That would cut the capital cost in half for an off-grid system and with Indian government subsidies, depending on where you are in the country, that could cut the capital cost of the farmer down to about $300, which would be affordable with a 1.5 year payback period. So this is a nice example of that detective work we do that you know we understood the opportunity, we understood the physics and we said okay, if we can design new drippers that operate at a tenth the pressure, but still delivered the correct flow rate of water, that could be a game changer. And so as we dug into what the engineering theory was that dictates how these drippers behave, it turned out we found that it looks like people had not articulated those mathematical relationships yet. We weren’t able to find them in the literature, Jain did not know about them and these drippers or similar flow restriction systems kike the drippers have been around since the mid 1940s and so what we did is we really dove into the rigorous analysis to articulate how the water flows through these things and how they control the water flow. And this was a pretty complicated problem, understanding some flexible elements in the drippers that bend under pressure and change the flow rate and restrict the water flow. But we are able to put together this fully analytical model of the coupled fluid mechanics and solid mechanics relationships in the dripper. Then what we are able to do with that is dump that into an optimization routine and you know with computer simulations come up with a new dripper architecture that’s basically just tweaked from the existing architecture, many slight little ways that operates at about one-seventh or one-eighth the pressure of the existing products. And so when these little drippers, these low pressure drippers we can about cut in half the capital cost for an off grid system and if you are a farmer that works on the electrical grid or uses diesel pumping, say you are farmer in California, it cuts your energy costs in half. And so in the last year we actually won a large grant from the U.S. Aid to pilot this technology in Jordan and Morocco starting early next year, as well as developed the full suite of solutions to work with many different crop types and many different farm situations, including off grid situations and that new technology will be piloted about 2.5 years from now.

David Kruse: Interesting, and so how – how was the engineering behind that. Because I imagined Jain probably has some pretty smart engineers. You know why is your team different or what makes you guys stand out. Is it because you get right down to the analytical detail, every part and every controller and flow system or how do you guys differentiate I guess…

Amos Winter: You are correct; Jain does have very smart engineers and they are a pleasure to work with. The types of problems we take on in our research group are ones where they currently does not exists the engineering theory to solve the problem we want to solve. You can just go look it up in a book, you can’t just like slap it into a computer simulation and do it really easily. There is just you know – no engineer in Jain Irrigation has really been thought the theory of how to design these super low pressure drippers, because it just doesn’t really exposits yet. And so that’s what creates the research that we do, and the research is the new engineering knowledge that we are trying to articulate that tells how this technology behaves and the idea behind research then is that you can discriminate that knowledge and teach the engineering community the new knowledge and then they can apply it to whatever they are trying to design.

David Kruse: So are you guys essentially, with this project creating the simulation from scratch or how – putting all the math behind it or how does – what’s your process?

Amos Winter: Yeah, in that example, yep it was – in one way all the way down to first principals of how the water flows through the dripper and how the pressure applied to the dripper changes the geometry of the flow path in it in order to change the resistance to fluid flow with the increases in pressure, because these drippers self regulate. They can maintain a constant flow rate with variations in pressure and that behavior is particularly important to our applications when we are trying to turn the system on very low pressure, because we can get upwards of three times different pressure from the drippers that are near the pump, which feel relatively high pressure to the drippers down at the end of the lines which feel a much lower pressure because of the pressure loss as the water flows through the irrigation line.

David Kruse: Well these, the DRIP irrigation systems also lasts longer because of the lower pressure?

Amos Winter: No, the pressure is not a limiting factor in the life of the system.

David Kruse: And do you see any uses for developed countries for this system?

Amos Winter: Absolutely, yeah, yeah, for places that are short of water or have issues with power. You know California falls under both those categories and DRIP irrigation is commercialized globally. It was really popularized in Israel in the in the 1970s and that’s when it really got its start. So yeah, like any farmer who is using drip irrigation, if they can lower the pressure needed to move the water through the system they save money on energy for pumping.

David Kruse: Interesting. And I know we are almost out of time, I’m curious, your users are around the world. So how do you get kind of that immediate feedback? I guess with this one it’s more of an engineering problem. I mean they are all engineering problems, but the wheelchair through, it probably would have been helpful to kind of have the wheelchair in its environment, but I guess you could just take it out back and try to – but…

Amos Winter: In every project we do, it is imperative that we spend time on the ground, not only with end users but with the entire chain of stakeholders that represent talking an idea from inception all the way to commercialization in the real world. You know because if we are not satisfying design requirements of the production guys, the distribution folk, you know of the end users, of maybe you know some government subsidy scheme of something, we are going to miss the mark. And time and time again we find – you know it really happens every six months when we are in the field. We discover a critical factor behind the problem we are trying to solve that if we missed it, it would have killed the project, done you know, and we only can ascertain those factors by being there on the ground and talking to this whole network of stakeholders that is going to insure the success or failure of the technology we are trying to create.

David Kruse: And that’s probably…

Amos Winter: And also I want to add one more thing too that like we in all these projects we never just go at it alone. We try to partner with the organizations that really know the market, ideally also that are in a position to manufacture and distribute at a large scale. So this example, the DRIP irrigation project that I gave, Jain Irrigation, our partner is an example, such a fantastic partner, because they know the market space, they can navigate things like government subsidies, they can manufacture and distribute on an enormous scale. They are a billion dollar a year revenue company and so what we are coming in with is trying to solve the technological key stone of a very large problem, where if we create that little key stone, Jain is in a position to built the rest of the arch with all of their capabilities in order to bring that technology into fruition.

David Kruse: Interesting. Yeah, I mean that’s another things that differentiates your group from – well the Jain Engineers and everyone else is that you think about the entire picture, the entire ecosystem that goes into this, which a lot of engineers don’t and so that kind of gives you a leg up on the more traditional, let’s say engineering projects.

Amos Winter: We try, and we screw it up all the time. But we try to screw it up as quickly as possible and screw it up in context around the people who know why we screwed it up and so we have the perspective of why and fix it.

David Kruse: But how do you uncover all the issues that you don’t even know about. I mean do you have – this might be too long a question. But how do you even know, because how do you even know what you don’t know. So when you get into something some of these issues just kind of arise in the middle of the project. Do you have systems now in place where you try to uncover some of this stuff as early as possible or is it just more kind of hit or miss.

Amos Winter: All the above. We try to uncover as much as possible, as early as possible, but we also always know that we don’t know everything and we are going to miss something. So my whole group travels to the field at least every six months and we test stuff, we test prototypes, we get feedback, we do user group or you know user surveys and focus groups and stuff. And from those interactions we discover even more information that we may have missed the first time around, but because we are capturing it as we are designing, we can integrate those insights into the design.

David Kruse: Interesting. All right, last question for you. Are you – is there any project that you really are interested in working on now that you are kind of thinking about or that you have started to work on. Is there anything that…?

Amos Winter: I think there is – well, do you mean in the future.

David Kruse: Yeah, in the future or something now that you have been just kind of started working on or maybe your dream project.

Amos Winter: Well yeah, I’ll give an extension of the current one. So one of our current projects is Brackish Water Desalination and our target market is off grid villages. But we are looking at this in all different contexts like micro municipal and home use and disaster response as a future one I want to do. But anyway, in the project we are trying to make clean water for people who live in rural areas and we understand the price point and the performance we have to hit. And what it is basically making three liters of drinking water per person per day and the systems were designed and can support about 10,000 people for their drinking water needs and they cost about – I’m sorry they can support about 3,000 people and they cost about $10,000 right. And so this is a capital cost per person, it’s around $3 per person. And even at that low price point it is barely affordable, you know it’s a stretch, because you know a small municipality has to front the money to create that thing and it’s a lot cheaper than like trying to do a system for each household, but it’s still pretty expensive and that system is only providing the most valuable water to people, which is the water you have to drink to stay alive. Now what fascinates me is thinking then about okay, what if we want to manage and supply the less valuable water like for bathing, you know and for cooking and carrying away sanitation waist. How do we do that when we are having to deal with much higher volumes of less valuable water and how do we do it at a price point where it could be adopted on a massive scale throughout the developing world.

David Kruse: Interesting.

Amos Winter: I love that problem.

David Kruse: That is an interesting problem. Wow! I mean how do you even get the brackish water to the plant?

Amos Winter: Well, it’s pumped out of the ground typically.

David Kruse: It is, okay.

Amos Winter: Or it can come from the municipal supply. But then the other side of your question is how does it feed houses. And right now with drinking water they come to a central facility where we are making the desalinated water, they fill up jerry cans and they walk them back to their house. If you start thinking about an actually municipal network or pipes to deliver water and take away waste, oh my God! That’s a mind-blowing challenge. It’s crazy to me to think about and walk through the U.S. and think that every single building I see has a pipe going in with water clean enough to drink and a pipe coming out that take away all our waste, and it’s all hooked together. And so like how do you – you know probably this is a solution, in poor countries it’s not you know copying what we have done here, because it’s exorbitantly expensive. But how do you provide that same core value to consumers in poor counters when they are incredibly constrained on cost.

David Kruse: That’s a challenge, that is wow! Yeah, you have some interesting days. Man, I love what you guys are doing. It must be fun and I mean you get the dual benefit; you get really fun interesting technical challenges, but then you also get to help the world. And maybe make some money doing it, which is not bad too and that’s awesome.

Amos Winter: That’s an important point actually that I don’t think benefiting humanity and making money doing it are mutually exclusive. And a lot of times I see people view programs to help the developing world as only charities. You know of course they are poor people, how could they pay for anything. Well, when you talk about the purchasing power of like half a billion farms, yeah it’s a lot of purchasing power. So I think you know the more companies and the more entrepreneurs can understand, what’s the value proposition in these consumers? How can I meet their needs at a price affordable for them. There is enormous economic opportunities, as well as enormous opportunities to improve the quality of like for people around the world.

David Kruse: That’s great, you must get out of the bed smiling, at least most days.

Amos Winter: I am very thankful that I get to do what I do. It’s so much fun.

David Kruse: And it’s so impressive, when you set this up right, the group yourself, and it’s like your own little incubator that is growing and growing. So it will be fun to follow you and see what else you build over the years.

Amos Winter: Cool, thank you.

David Kruse: Yeah, definitely, and Amos I definitely appreciate your time, your thoughts and love what you are doing. So keep at it and I’ll check in once in a while and thanks everyone for listening to another episode of Flyover Labs. As always, I greatly appreciate it and we’ll see next time. Thanks Amos, thanks everyone.

Amos Winter: Great, thank you Dave. Take care.

David Kruse: Bye.