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Ergonomically Correct Ways to Get Cracking
The sound is like hundreds of ping-pong balls bouncing off a floor.
It’s the cracking of the argan nut—the incredibly hard pit of a fruit whose innards fetch a high price on European and North American markets after it’s converted into cooking oil or cosmetics.
A group of women spend the day sitting on the floor as part of a cooperative in remote Tiout, Morocco—one of the only places in the world where the argan tree grows prolifically—cracking the valuable nut. Each of the women has a large rock between her legs, smacking the thumb-sized argan nut with a smaller stone to get at the core. The work requires a degree of skill—too much force will not only crack the nut but also obliterate its fragile contents. Too little force will leave the nut unscathed.
The labor creates some obvious hazards for the women. Crushed fingers, repetitive stress and poor ergonomics are just a few of the things they contend with.
Richard Schuhmann, Walter L. Robb Director of Engineering Leadership Development at Penn State, became involved with the cooperative four years ago after a Moroccan colleague thought that Schuhmann might be able to help the women.
“They’re not horrific social needs,” said Schuhmann. “The problem is, there’s a cooperative here of 50 women, most of them are widowed or divorced, and the only way they can earn money is by breaking nuts eight hours a day.”
Over the past four years, Schuhmann and his students have learned about this community and engineered ways to make the women’s lives easier. “One of the most important challenges our students face when designing for developing-world communities is to not only satisfy the need, but the make sure that solution is appropriate,” said Schuhmann.
Supporting the developing world
Schuhmann has integrated the design-and-build work across his curriculum, from an introductory engineering leadership experience course to a more advanced virtual teaming class where his students collaborate with business students from Corvinus University in Budapest to support enterprises in the developing world.
One of Schumann’s students’ first projects was the development of finger protectors for the women in the Moroccan cooperative.
Schuhmann said the protectors were such a hit that many of the women began fashioning their own based on the original Penn State designs.
Not every project is an unqualified success, however. Replacement anvils and strikers designed by the undergraduates met with a cool reception, as was a chair and table prototype meant to alleviate the lower-back strain the women were experiencing. The women said that the chair reclined too steeply and the table was too unstable to stand in for the anvil rock—making it difficult to do their work.
Feedback is key
Learning from the feedback provided by the co-op, Schuhmann’s students redesigned the chairs this spring. The students’ new design, which Schuhmann delivered to the cooperative over the summer, is a low, beach-style chair that includes three angles for reclining.
This time around, the chairs were a hit with the women. As quickly as the chairs were brought in to the cooperative, the women ditched the floor pillows that provided their only comfort from the unyielding floor.
Schuhmann hopes that the women take the chair design and make it their own, replicating and perhaps improving on the original, just like with the finger protectors.
The students purposely designed the chairs to be assembled without the aid of metal nails, screws or hinges. The kit consists of straight wood pieces, dowels, denim fabric for the seat and even an Ikea-like set of instructions.
The students built a total of 20 chairs for the women. Schuhmann and civil engineering senior Lydia Karlheim assembled 19 of them for the cooperative – intentionally leaving the 20th unassembled as a template for future, village-produced chairs.
“I think our students learn very good lessons when they engage in this type of design. If our students designed a fantastically efficient machine, came up with a terrific engineering solution, they could destroy this entire cooperative,” said Schuhmann. “Instead, the students forged a relationship with the community, learning about another culture and appropriate engineering design. And these women are delighted to no end that there are young people in a place called America that think about them and send them these innovations each year.”