by Enrique Ramírez, Ennomotive

There is a type of innovation whose goal is to adapt the existing product to make it viable in developing countries. This is called ‘Frugal Innovation’ or ‘Frugal Engineering’.

To accomplish this, the complexity of the product is reduced. It becomes more affordable, simplifying functionalities, materials and even the manufacturing process. There some well-known examples such as Tata Nano, a $1500 vehicles that went to market in India, or the One Laptop Per Child project, that reduced the laptop cost down to $100.

Here is the case carried out by Fundación ICAI para el Desarrollo and our open innovation platform, ennomotive. Every year we try to launch at least one or two projects to help low-budget foundations, universities or companies. In the past, we have organized challenges like monitoring systems for lead batteries for Acciona Microenergía and the development of craft-manufacturing tubes for the UPM Racing Team.

This year we have completed a social project to develop a water distribution solution in the Wampis community, in the Amazonian forest in Peru.

It is easy to assume that everybody has access to drinkable water, but in reality, there are many places in the world where it is very difficult to access it. These places are normally remote or there a serious lack of natural resources.

This is the case of the Wampis community in Peru. The challenge stems from the project carried out in the Amazonian community of Villa Gonzalo, located north of the Amazon department, next to the Santiago River.

In this little town, there are 850 people organized in 150 families. They are from the Wampis culture, a Peruvian folk that has always lived in the forest.

This town’s situation was not exactly the best, especially when it comes to accessing drinkable water. Before this project started, the members of this community pften used contaminated water which was not suitable for human consumption.

To solve this issue, the foundation talked to the community authorities and agreed that the best possible solution was rainwater harvesting since it is a simple, quick and low-cost option.

However, besides the construction of the harvesting systems and tanks, there was another key point that makes the project viable: the distribution of water among the members of the community.

Once the foundation identified the need to create a fair water distribution system, they talked to the engineering platform ennomotive to launch a collaborative challenge to find a suitable solution that solved this problem.

This challenge was joined by 55 engineers from different countries like Australia, Chile, Argentina, Korea, Iran, United Kingdom, Romania, Belgium, Norway, Denmark. The problem had to be solved according to the context of the project: it had to be affordable, easy to implement and made with local materials.

A crowdsourcing engineering success story with a social goal.
After two months, the winning solution was selected. Amir Shahar, an Israeli engineer living in Denmark submitted the best project and now this Peruvian community can distribute water fairly among them.

Amir’s solution is an unloading system similar to a toilet tank that measures the amount flushed in every unloading, combined with an access control through a coin mechanism similar to the supermarket lockers’, that collects the coins inside a closed box.

A member of the community acts as guardian of the coins, which collects the coins and gives them back to the families once every day. This way, more coins can be given depending on the number of family members or in case there is a special situation.

This solution met the project’s evaluation criteria perfectly: low-cost solution, easy to implement and maintain.

There is another solution that has also been awarded due to its high quality and low-cost. It is a very robust solution, and it comes from two of the more active engineers in the ennomotive community.

Their names are Antonio J. Sarmiento and Antonio Gasca, the founders of 2GS ingeniería. Antonio and José won several awards in other challenges like the water recovery challenge by Pladur or the portable factories by OHL Pacadar.

The proposal focuses on the development of a purely mechanical system (no electricity needed), capable of measuring the flow of a pipe. In addition, this system can stop the water flow once the established volume limit has been reached.

This system called isolator flowmeter had to be installed in every house, one per family. That is, every collecting tank must have 15 isolator flowmeters.

What we have called isolator flowmeter is basically formed by three elements: a mechanical flowmeter, a flap valve (backflow installed), and an outlet valve (a common irrigation valve).

In case it is necessary, the proposed set could be protected inside a box with a lock to limit its use. Only the person in charge of the whole installation would have a key.

The handle flow rotation in conjunction can be seen when the fluid goes through the body. It has a nipple in the outside part. This nipple must act on the flap valve once the handle has completed a whole spin.

Once the handle has spun enough times to allow the flow of the established volume, the axis of the flap valve will reach the limit of support on said handle, thus closing the flap valve with the aid of a spring installed on the axis.

Looking at these solutions, it was interesting to see how people from different countries organized and worked selflessly to design a system to help the lives of the people in this Amazonian community.

Thanks to the new technologies, the Internet and the collaborative working models it is possible nowadays to look for the best solution to a certain engineering problem.

This is no ordinary, repetitive and traditional solution but a special project adapted to its particular context, which compares different characteristics, approaches, budgets, and degree of flexibility of the different potential options. In the end, the best solution or a combination of several proposals was selected, always based on the creativity, talent, and experience of many engineers with very different backgrounds. All of it is done in a fast, effective and low-cost way, a Frugal Engineering solution.

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