Saturday, June 4, 2011

All-a-Board team comes out a cut above in PDD competition - SDM Pulse Summer 2011

By Joshua Eaton, SDM ’11

Joshua Eaton
SDM ’11
Editor’s note: Joshua Eaton and his teammates (all members of SDM’s 2011 cohort) won this year’s design competition in SDM’s product design and development course.

Product Design and Development (PDD) is a required course designed to give SDM students the full experience of designing and developing a new product. The class—one of the foundation courses in the SDM curriculum—is known for generating innovative ideas and launching startups. Our team was delighted to win the PDD competition for our all-in-one cutting board system. We hope this will be the first milestone on our way to becoming successful entrepreneurs.

PDD centers around one assignment—a semester-long project to conceive, design, evaluate, and prototype a physical product. Forming a project team was our first PDD task. Since a few of us had worked well together during SDM’s January session robot design project, we decided to join forces again for the PDD design challenge. We then asked two more members of our SDM ’11 cohort to join us to add breadth to the team.

The result was a diverse team with a range of skills—one we felt could tackle any task. I am a special forces officer in the US Army; Bassel F. Alsultan is a systems engineer working for Saudi Aramco; Scott McCarthy is a software architect with experience at Raytheon; Tomohiko Nakamura has seven years of experience designing mixed-signal circuits; Sergey Naumov has 15 years of experience in network and security operations; and Matt Renzi has a PhD in applied physics.

During the PDD course this spring, students were asked to focus their product on the theme of healthy living. Once our team was formed, therefore, we set to work evaluating several potential user groups, including members of MIT’s Zesiger Center (the Institute’s gym), the MIT Outing Club, the MIT biking community, and home cooks. After numerous user interviews, ethnographic research, and a more detailed market analysis, our team decided to target home cooks, a user group that appeared to us to have the most potential. Our thinking was, if the topic is healthy living, where better to focus our efforts than on a product that will facilitate preparing and cooking healthy meals?

Members of the All-a-Board team affix the cutting board
to a router in the MIT Hobby Shop. They used the router
to create grooves used to connect bowls to the cutting board.
Team members from left: Sergey Naumov, Scott McCarthy,
Matt Renzi, and Tomohiko Nakamura.
The course taught us to look for user needs, both articulated and non-articulated, and to develop solutions for those needs. After selecting the healthy food preparation market, we chose three market needs based upon user feedback: easy food preparation, portion control, and simple cleanup. With these in mind, the team brainstormed possible ideas: a multi-function food preparation station, which addresses all three items, a food preparation kit  for fast and easy home cooking, and a multi-function thermos for transporting food for children.

After further interviews of potential customers we decided to focus on the food preparation station. Initially, we planned a modular food dredging station (which would double as a cutting board holder) for coating foods before pan-frying or baking. However, we found that the modular cutting board portion of the solution was the feature that most resonated with home chefs. Therefore, we narrowed our focus to the needs of cutting board users.

Using ethnographic techniques studied in class, we observed cutting board users and found that typical cooks had a two-part process: chopping, then placing the chopped items into a container. The process is usually “complex” because it can involve several steps, such as sliding knives under the vegetables to lift them into bowls, using hands to lift them, and picking up the cutting board to slide the vegetables off. User surveys confirmed what we saw in the kitchen; besides a cutting board, the primary tools used were bowls for preparation and measuring. Through this research we identified an unmet user need: an easy way to slide chopped vegetables directly into a bowl—what we call the “no-lift process.”

Further brainstorming on how to move vegetables to a bowl led us to evaluate multiple bowl connection techniques: magnets, clips, notches, and other creative solutions. Using a Pugh Concept Selection chart—a method for matching user needs to proposed solutions—helped us move toward our preliminary solution: a cutting board with clip-on bowls. The main Pugh criteria we used were aesthetics, cost, complexity, dishwasher-safety, size, and efficiency. We designed and built three early prototypes: one made of paper; one of foam; and one of foam, wood, and plastic. These provided valuable insight that informed the final prototype.

Ultimately, we created All-a-Board, a sophisticated-looking maple cutting board, with notches cut beneath the board for attaching ceramic bowls. A plastic chopping board overlay allows the cutting of meats on the same system. The prototype used commercial, off-the-shelf components; All-a-Board will eventually use bowls designed for specific sizes, (1-cup, 2-cup, 4-cup). The All-a-Board cutting system is a complete chopping solution: modular, attractive, and easy to use—for under $50.

The teams in the product design class identified a wide variety of ideas to meet the healthly living theme. Other products in the competition included a novel bike rack that provides helmet and accessory storage, an iPod holder that double as a gym wipe dispenser, a system to load a kayak onto the car, and a disposable toothbrush head for brushing on the go. Each solved significant user needs for healthy living and were all great product ideas. But, I think the user need we solved was universal; everyone who has cooked at home has developed a workaround for making the transfer from cutting board  to bowl. Our solution provides an attractive kitchen product with an easy-to-use technique for healthy food preparation.

We are very proud that our design captured the jury’s attention and won first prize in the PDD competition. But even better was the feeling we all had right after we had our final prototype made—“This is a great product!” Not surprisingly, some of our classmates and faculty members who saw our “works-like” and “looks-like” prototypes reacted by saying, “I’d buy it! How much will it cost?”

The jury’s decision further bolstered our confidence and we look forward to continuing to work together in evaluating All-a-Board’s long-term business potential.

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