Designing and Implementing a Better Cook Stove - by Alison Shin '13

Before I begin, I must warn you. The only type of writing I do is occasional writing for my journal, which means there might be a lot of unnecessary feelings, verbosity, and hyperboles. :P

I'll start my story by talking about my boss. Peter Scott is Canadian. He's kind of crazy. But most importantly, he's a visionary. He founded the non-profit organization BURN Design Lab (BDL) based in Vashon, WA about a year ago with the vision of designing - not just engineering - cook stoves to be mass produced in developing countries. Then came BDL's sister company BURN Manufacturing Company (BMC), a for-profit organization that will be manufacturing the stoves here in Kenya. This means adding to the local economy by manufacturing 20,000 stoves per month, stove that women would love not only for its performance, but for its usability and aesthetics as well. And throughout the year, an incredibly talented group of engineers and designers has decided to join Peter on this mission of saving forests...and saving lives.

Here is an awesome video that sums up the vision behind BURN:

I could really go on for days talking about how amazing these people are. Instead, I'll focus more on my work and learning, but to talk about my experience at BURN without going into how wonderful these people are would be like talking about the safari experience and forgetting to mention the beauty and expansiveness of the natural environment. (Unnecessary comparison, I know, I just wanted to brag that I went to my first safari J ). 

Anyway, even though BURN is infamously broke :P, it has succeeded in recruiting the hardest working, most knowledgeable, and the most bad-ass people ever. The team is made up of type-A industrial designers who could eyeball even better than I could ever measure, programmers who basically memorized the whole mechanical engineering handbook out of hobby and passion, engineers who gained their unconventional wisdom through jobs like packing salmon or travelling the world, manufacturing guys who'd spend hours telling stories about dies and tools as if they're talking about some crazy, wild nights in college.

I guess when you have a group of people who are truly passionate about what they do, you're bound to get such a great set of talents. And being surrounded by them, I was also motivated to work hard and learn a ton. It even made me reconsider my career choice; before, I was so eager to get away from engineering because I felt that it was dry. But I now realize that when you work with a team this dynamic, engineering becomes such an interesting challenge that requires collaborative critical thinking. With this brainy bunch, elongated design meetings, countless iterations, failed beer Fridays, and super scrupulous testing (sarcasm intended), we were able to come up with our stove, the Tank.

Cook Stoves.pngFigure 1) the Tank family. The Tank gives the user almost a half fuel savings, smoke reduction that is significant enough to be seen with the naked eye, and lasts three years.

And now I'm in Kenya with Eoin and Megan,  who never cease to stop entertaining me with their crazy stories from all over the world (They actually made all the BURN videos. Check out their website for the videos during their 2 year trip!) The first couple weeks in Kenya were a little overwhelming because I was so used to designing and prototyping the stove, but now I was being handed the finished product and being asked to show the world what it can do. I'm now responsible for user research and aiding Eoin in the manufacturing set up, and both were initially a little daunting to wrap my head around. My first focus group was chaos; women were picking up hot charcoal from one stove to the other, there was a one-year-old baby trying to help her mom light the stoves by playing with the matches, and ashes flying everywhere due to the excessive fanning. But it was a successful chaos; the women loved our stove and I learned so much by observing and participating in the cooking.

The stove was no longer just a glossy, pretty trophy that epitomized the endless yet rewarding iterations of designing and prototyping; it was a part of someone's life, a part that they'd physically touch and use, talk about, and take care of. The women were so happy with our stove, not just because it saved them fuel and smoked less than the traditional Kenyan Ceramic Jikos (KCJs), but also because it had handles that weren't too hot to grab onto, an ash tray that they can take out easily instead of dumping out the whole stove, and most importantly, they just thought it was a very nice, unique looking stove. The users wanted the stove. Aside from saving trees and reducing indoor smoke, if the users don't want our product, then our work means nothing. Though our organization exists as non-profit in the States, our stove is a consumer product that will have competitions and simply, if it's not desirable to the users, it will not be bought and therefore not used. BMC is an actual business that needs to make profit to sustain itself and continue to produce the stoves in Kenya.

Seeing the women so happy about the product, I now feel so confident and excited about what is ahead of us. As a startup in a foreign country, there are lots of challenges and questions we face every day. Especially as a student, I can't help but feel inadequate at times, representing BURN as a mechanical engineer in an unfamiliar culture. However, the whole experience has been extremely exciting. From the excessive gregariousness of the Kenyan suppliers to the madness of the Matatu rides, every day is an adventure here, and with the people you trust and doing the work you believe in, you really can't help but feel that anything is possible.   

Posted in: A Broader World View, Awesome Internships, Learning about Design, Making a Difference