Empathy. Psychology Today defines it as “the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective.” It’s a vital trait for all, but is particularly valuable to designers, since it allows them to better grasp the wants and needs of the prospective users of their products and services.
It also was a driving force behind an award-winning product concept hatched by a pair of young, German design students. Neither has ever set foot in Africa, and yet they sympathized with the difficult challenges facing African villagers who struggle daily for access to clean, safe drinking water. That led Anna-Katharina Halde, 25, and Marilena Hamm, 23, to embark jointly on a project for one of their industrial design classes at Hochschule Pforzheim, about 30 miles northwest of Stuttgart. The two met at school and quickly became fast friends.
“We both have wanted to go to Africa for a long time,” said Halde in a recent Skype interview. “When I was little, I watched a lot of documentaries about the hunger, drinking and sanitation problems there.
“We wanted our project to help solve one of the difficulties Africa faces,” she and Hamm explained. “Water is the most important basic element of everyday life, and everyone should have access to it. In reality, though, almost 800 million people worldwide are lacking access to clean water, with some 358 million people in Africa affected.”
In Africa, she noted, people often have to walk for miles to get to the nearest water source, only to transport the often-contaminated water in 20-liter, used canisters on their heads or on their backs. And it is often the women and girls who are primarily responsible for supplying water to their families.
So as a project for one of their classes, and with mentoring from their professor, Cosima Striepe, Halde and Hamm spent four months researching and designing a new water-transport product they dubbed Loop. Why Loop? “Loo is an African word for ‘happiness’ or ‘joy,’ like when you say ‘yippee!’ Also, it´s the short version of looping, and our tank is rolling or ‘looping’ all the time.”
Both wished to give credit for some of their inspiration for Loop to a similar product, called the Hippo Water Roller (www.hipporoller.org), which was launched in 1994 by two South Africans. Designed in Africa for Africa, the 90-liter, extrusion-blow-molded Hippo Water Roller is a handled, rolling plastic barrel that enables women, children and the elderly to collect five times more water than a single bucket by simply rolling it along the ground. But it is much too large and heavy to carry, and Halde and Hamm say that those gathering the water often need to climb over fences or branches or navigate steep, uneven terrain and being able to comfortably carry the tank like a backpack would solve much of those problems.
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Some of their objectives with the Loop product included:
- a reliable, double filter system that helps address the problem of contaminated water;
- different options to facilitate transportation, i.e., push, pull or carry;
- a large, 40-liter capacity;
- additional comfort via a built-in manual water pump and support padding.
“Since we wanted the canister to be rolled,” Halde said, “it had to be round. In addition, it had to be ergonomically adaptable to allow one to effortlessly carry it on his or her back.”
As a result, after assessing three possible versions, they developed Loop as a round tank, with two hard rubber tires on the rolling surface to provide stability. The design includes a removable, long-handled steel pole that attaches to the side and allows for rolling or dragging the tank.
The lid is reversible. If the lid is turned inside out, the tank can be carried as a backpack, using straps attached to the underside of the lid. A manual water pump resides beneath the lid. The Loop’s hose includes a filter system that can be placed in water, and it has a pump that propels clean water into the tank. They believe they need a dual-filter system, to help remove not only dirt but also chemical residue and bacteria. That may require a charcoal filter, as well as, perhaps something along the lines of the LifeStraw product that uses a straw-style filter design to turn contaminated water into safe drinking water.
“The biggest challenge from a design standpoint was to address the problems through functional features on the one hand,” Halde said, “while keeping the product simple enough for all to use. It was equally difficult to combine all these requirements in a product that needs to be as robust as possible and still simple to manufacture.”
Halde and Hamm are not material and process experts, but they gained knowledge about various options via both personal research and some of their engineering courses. They feel that the Loop’s body should be made of rugged, food-safe, UV-resistant polypropylene, and have considered using recycled bicycle tire treads as the tracks on the rolling Loop tank. They would make the handle out of solid and durable stainless steel, and also would need some type of durable fabric or cloth for the padding and straps.
“In terms of actually producing Loop, we would like to use 3D printing to make a prototype,” Halde said, “but the commercial product would need to be injection molded. Ideally, it should be produced locally to help boost the countries’ economies, while keeping production costs at a minimum and creating new jobs.”
Halde and Hamm see the Loop as being potentially useful in any number of developing countries, such as India or China, where access to clean water can be a challenge.
“We would like to realize Loop, however, without appropriate sponsors we lack the necessary resources. Therefore, we try to gain attention via contests and editorial reports like this. We would be grateful if a company or foundation would help us to do the next steps.”
The two women were thrilled that Loop won recognition recently from the iF International Forum Design GmbH, which organizes one of the world's most celebrated and valued design competitions, the iF Design Award. That Germany-based competition receives more than 5,000 submissions from 70 countries every year. In addition to its flagship award, the group also gives out other honors, including the iF Student Design Award and the iF Public Value Awards.
Loop was one of 33 projects to be honored with an iF Public Value Student Award, and Hamm and Halde collected their winning certificate on Feb. 23 in Munich, where their project was exhibited in the Pinakothek der Moderne, or modern art gallery. The Loop also now has its own page on the iF World Design Guide website.
Using Keyshot design software along with Photoshop, they’ve created very realistic-looking images of how Loop might look being used in the field in Africa, and also have produced a short, animated movie on YouTube to further demonstrate the product.
“We are trying to generate as many prospects as possible,” they said, noting that entering design competitions and getting editorial coverage such as this also helps.
Both Hamm and Halde expect to graduate in July 2017 with bachelor degrees in industrial design from the 45-year-old Pforzheim School of Design, which Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine has ranked among the 60 best academic design institutions worldwide. They would love to form their own design firm together, though they recognize they may need to get some experience first working for others.
Meantime, nothing would give them more joy than seeing their Loop become a reality.
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