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Designing With Constraints In Mind

Posted on January 20th, 2017 by in New Materials & Applications


When taking on any new project, a smart first step is to clearly define what you’re trying to achieve. What does success look like? What does failure look like? Where are the lines that you cannot or will not cross? What are your boundary conditions?

By first fully defining your requirements and the scope of the work you’re going to carry out up front, all of the constraints are known, which usually makes it easier to focus on finding the best solution within those boundaries.

While following this process is important for any project (product development in particular), I think it’s especially important when creating something new or trying to solve a problem in an innovative way. Clearly thinking through the constraints up front can be a great way to force our thinking to be innovative. Identifying tight boundaries forces us to innovate inside the box we create, no matter how restrictive that may initially seem.

Working Within Tight Constraints

One example of an innovative product coming out of a series of constraints which initially seems far too restrictive was recently showcased by a team at Stanford University.

Manu Prakash is an assistant professor of bioengineering and part of a group who are looking to make science more affordable and accessible. In this case, they were looking for a way to bring medical tools to billions of people on the planet who may not normally be able to access them.

The focus of their latest work was a centrifuge.

Used to separate blood into different parts for further testing to aid with medical diagnoses, commercial centrifuges are heavy, require electricity and are expensive. It’s simply not possible for them to be used in labs or hospitals in lots of places around the world.

In an interview, Manu Prakash said: “We told ourselves we’re going to design one but it cannot require any electricity because of the places we work in it needs to be completely light and portable that I could carry it in my pocket and it had to cost less than a dollar in parts just so we can actually scale the manufacturing. By boxing ourselves in with constraints we can think outside the box.”

When comparing those constraints with the traditional solution, it might at first seem like this is an impossible task.

The Paperfuge

With those extremely restrictive constraints, the team were forced to look for a solution which was radically different from a traditional centrifuge.

Inspired by a child’s toy, they came up with a product they’ve called a “Paperfuge”. This device costs just 20 cents to produce and is capable of spinning a capillary tube filled with a blood sample to speeds of up to a hundred and twenty five thousand revolutions per minute. These speeds are sufficient for separating blood for further testing, which includes being able to test samples for Malaria.

This short video does a good job of showing the solution the team have come up with.

Is This Innovation?

It’s easy to overlook this as simply the reuse of a known technology in a new context. All the team have done here is attach a blood sample to a child’s toy, which sounds like a simple thing to have done. At face value, that doesn’t sound like something worth celebrating.

But, this is a really good example of what innovation often looks like. None of the pieces on their own are new. But they are new in this context, doing this job, in this way. The solution they have developed is new, and innovative. This has never been done before.

And they only got there by first defining the problem they were looking to solve, identifying their constraints and then moving on to find a solution.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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