This project is the opposite of the usual development paradigm: it’s bottom-up rather than top-down. Industrial development usually involves big money spent by a non-governmental organization or a government agency, funneled through local officials and/or businesspeople who are building the factory or project. By the time it reaches a neighborhood, town or village, much of the money has been skimmed off. And if the NGO or government agency loses interest or changes priorities, the project loses funding. As a result, the equipment that IS built eventually breaks or “walks away.”
This project’s approach is different: it relies on individual people’s desire to improve their own lives, if they have the information to do it. In this case, the information itself is often very old – my group and I have been researching early industrial techniques to find those that would be useful for people with very few material resources and a need to make the most of what they have.
For example, how do you drill a hole in hard steel – often essential when you’re trying to fix broken farm equipment — if you don’t have an industrial-strength drill? In our case, a simple-but-forgotten 19th-century technique provided the answer, and we’ve broken down the techniques into straightforward diagrams and packaged them online so that anyone with basic mechanical skills can put them to work. (How do you do it? By buying or scavenging a single drill bit and making a turning mechanism using scrap wood, someone can drill holes in scrap steel and bolt it to wooden plows to use as plow points. For many people, a life-changing technology! I started developing the tool at the request of an engineering professor in Kenya.)
For another example, we’ve revived a nearly forgotten, World War One-era way to build the most elemental machine tool – a lathe – using a frame of concrete (readily available around the world) rather than the usual finished steel. Following our diagrams (based on idea that won a man named Lucien Yeomans the engineering world’s Franklin Prize after WW1), someone could use parts readily at hand and use them to make the building blocks for a machine shop…or a trade school or a small factory.
We’re combining these long-ignored techniques with an internet-era sensibility, in a way that almost seems like science fiction at times! For a start, thousands of people have joined a Yahoo Group to help support the project and contribute ideas and information (many of them are retired engineers and machinists eager to pass their knowledge to a new generation). We’ve also adopted an “open source” approach – we make the plans available to everyone able to access the internet, which hundreds of millions of people in the developing world can do, at least through a cell phone. The goal is to get the information into the right hands – success for us would be to help embed the technology in small schools and shops and let it bubble up to light industry from there.
Note that this kind of learning trains someone not just to machine metal but also to measure and work accurately – the focus required to machine a surface to a thousandth-of-an-inch tolerance will carry over to almost everything in life.