Friday, October 3, 2008

Tea anyone? New mug wins SDM design competition - SDM Pulse, Fall 2008

By Leigh Gautreau, SDM ’08

Traveling down the stairwell of Building 9 to our basement classroom, none of us in SDM had any clue how ESD.40 Product Design and Development (PDD) would unfold. Some students had already thought about products they would like to develop, while others were directionless but hopeful.

I found myself on a team with Jeremy Katz, Kenneth Liu, and Michael Johnston. Jeremy works on kernel development at Red Hat, Kenneth is a computer and electrical engineer, Michael is a mechanical engineer
who works as a captain in the Coast Guard, and I am a chemical engineer, but that is one of the most interesting aspects of SDM in general and ESD.40 in particular. Each unites people with a wide range of expertise on projects outside their comfort zones. We created the team name JKLM out of our initials, but none of us knew exactly what we wanted to develop. We just knew we didn’t want it to involve software.
Members of team JKLM pose with Peter Morley from the
MIT machine shop, center, and their prize-winning tea
mug. Team members are, from left, Jeremy Katz, Michael
Johnston, Kenneth Liu, and Leigh Gautreau.

One day after class, while talking with teaching assistant Alyson Scherer about markets with underserved needs, the subject of tea drinkers on the go emerged. This group seemed to have good market potential since there appeared to be no adequate solution to the problem of what to do with used tea bags. Moreover, because tea is growing in popularity, we think convenience is an important key to expansion. Our goal was to revolutionize the tea market so that on-the-go tea is as common as coffee in the United States.

I believe our prospects are good. Already a process that began at the start of term as a simple practice of identifying user needs has solidified into a viable product—the T2Go mug—which won first place and $1,000 worth of American Express gift checks in the 2008 PDD design competition, the capstone to the ESD.40 class.

ESD.40 is both a class and a competition; groups form and compete to identify a concept, develop a design,
build a prototype, and evaluate the business case for a product that surpasses those of other groups. The
course structure helped JKLM focus on a need and single out a user group, both of which led to JKLM’s realization of a timely idea. ESD.40 provides students with a framework within which to develop products. Lectures about identifying and interviewing user groups, for example, were followed by presentations on how teams employed the techniques taught. Likewise, lectures on the House of Quality (which ranks engineering characteristics in terms of how they address user needs) and Pugh Selection Process (used to select the product attributes that best address user needs) were also followed by presentations demonstrating the implementation of these techniques by the various groups.

Our team found the experiential learning aspect of ESD.40 most valuable; it transcended the classroom.
The four of us listened to users, observed them carefully, and engaged them in the product development
process. Narrowing down the user group and needs was a challenge. Often users jumped directly to answers, while we struggled to get them to focus on problem statements. But once the problem was clearly defined, the solution began to define itself almost naturally.

JKLM’s product was designed to fill the needs of tea drinkers who want to grab their cup and go—board a
train, catch their carpool, or walk to work—without having to worry about bitter tea or tea bag disposal.

JKLM faced strict budgetary ($800) and time constraints (a 14-week semester), which were overcome by utilizing some of the techniques described in ESD.40 to bound the proposed solution. Results of user interviews and surveys were narrowed down with the House of Quality methodology. Once viable engineering characteristics were identified, these were used to generate concepts, which were then compared to a datum (an existing travel tea mug) using the Pugh Matrix. Then the best concept or amalgamation of concepts was selected. JKLM conducted thorough patent and commercial product searches and refined the design to improve upon and surpass existing products. We also developed a business case for the product looking at costs in the development, manufacturing, and distribution domains.

Staff in the MIT machine shop helped us understand what was feasible, given the time and money allotted.
The shop’s supervisor, Peter Morley, in particular contributed to our success by making our prototype in his
free time.

The tea mug JKLM designed features an integrated infuser in its lid that opens for steeping and closes to end steeping with a turn of a knob. This feature keeps the tea from getting bitter without forcing the user to remove a dripping tea bag. JKLM’s design also incorporates an insulated cup to keep the tea the right temperature and storage at the bottom for sweeteners or extra tea. The mug can be used for either tea bags or loose leaf tea, and it is dishwasher safe.

Our prototype mug faced off against some terrific products in the PDD design competition—including an
automated mail delivery system, a solar-powered refrigerator, an umbrella dryer, and a touch-up paint dispenser—so our team was extremely proud to win first place. This success has inspired us to continue our work. Since the semester’s conclusion, JKLM has identified several companies that may be interested in producing the T2Go travel mug. Only time will tell how far this traveling tea mug will go.

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