Sunday, June 7, 2009

Grad’s journey takes him from SDM program to India - SDM Pulse, Summer 2009

By Sorin Grama, SDM ’06

Editor’s note: SDM students are identified by year of entry to the program, not by graduation year, which is typically one to two years later.

Sorin Grama
SDM ’06
Little did I know, as I sat in Professor Ed Crawley’s class on a cold January morning in 2006, that I would one day be reviewing the system architecture principles I was learning to develop my own solar-powered refrigeration business.

This journey began in August 2007 when I took a field trip to India with a team of fellow MIT students to analyze the business potential for a low-cost solar-powered turbine. We conducted a market study, talking to farmers, business owners, and leaders in more than 40 different villages. Along the way we learned that dairies were facing particular difficulties.

In India, where the roads and power infrastructure are not well developed, the fresh food supply chain faces phenomenal challenges. Raw milk, for example, will spoil unless it is processed within four hours of milking, yet rural India typically lacks access to refrigerated storage. Therefore, dairy staff must travel twice a day—coinciding with milking times—to collect milk from far-flung village collection centers.

We realized that if milk could be chilled at the collection center, then dairies could transport it once a day or even once every other day—cutting down on their high transportation costs. We therefore started to consider ways we could adapt our technology to meet this great need. Unfortunately, our original technology proved unsuitable. I had to make the tough decision to discard the old technology and look for a new one.

Working with a like-minded member of my original team, I cofounded Promethean Power Systems in 2007 to address the need I had discovered. In forming my technology strategy, I relied on lessons I’d learned in SDM, working to deliver value using innovative new technologies that could someday unseat the incumbent ones, disrupting the marketplace. I settled upon a novel refrigeration technology that I believe will ultimately
replace conventional refrigeration compressors: thermoelectrics hybridized with traditional vapor-compressor
refrigeration to improve overall efficiency.

Next I had to consider how to incorporate this novel technology into a complete product. I settled on a solar-powered milk cooler for storing milk at small, village-level collection centers throughout India. Remote milk coolers are not a new idea, but in India they must be operated with a diesel generator as grid power is often unreliable or nonexistent. Our novel solution solves this problem though the use of solar power, which reduces transportation and operating costs while maintaining the quality of milk throughout the supply chain.

Designing a product like this begins with the process of identifying customer needs and converting them to target specifications—topics I learned a lot about in Product Design and Development. This was the goal I set for my most recent trip to India. In February I spent a month traveling the country interviewing the different stakeholders involved in milk collection.

In February, Sorin Grama, SDM ’06, right, traveled
to Gujarat, India, to interview stakeholders with
his business partner, Sam White.
My colleagues and I followed the milk trail from cattle to consumer and observed, surveyed, and documented the entire process. We woke up at 6 am to watch the farmers milk the cows, walked with them to the collection center, rode on the pickup trucks that took the milk to the processing plant and inter- viewed consumers purchasing fresh milk the next day. As a result of this study, I now have a good understanding of what design features are important to our customers.

The more I thought about the product the more I realized that this is an entire system, not just an isolated product. Thus any solution must be addressed at the larger system level. I considered several questions: Where are the boundaries of this system? Who is interacting with this system? and How should the different internal processes be converted to form? It was systems architecture thinking all over again—which is how I found myself reviewing my class notes from Crawley’s systems architecture class, trying to extract the key lessons that could help me design a system, not just a product.

While observing the milk collection process, I also realized that this is a supply-chain logistics problem. So, I began going through my notes from my class in supply-chain logistics and reaching out to my MIT connections for help.

My journey has taken me from a simple product idea, to system-level thinking, and beyond that to a supply-chain network perspective. With all these views in mind, I am now putting together a design process involving risk analysis, project organization, design structure matrix, and earned value method—all useful tactics I learned in an MIT project management class.

It’s been a great journey so far and I’m pleasantly surprised to see that my school work (and all that money I paid for the SDM program) has not gone to waste. I hope some day to synthesize this flow from idea to technology to product to system to network into a set of lessons I can myself teach to students.

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