EPFL students get hands-on experience with “Made in China”
15.12.17 - Students from EPFL, the Lausanne School of Art & Design (ECAL) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL) headed to China this summer for the China Hardware Innovation Camp, where they made industrial prototypes based on research they had conducted over the year. The Camp aims to promote innovation by allowing students to experience the full product development process for connected objects, from fleshing out an initial idea through to production.
Four teams of students from EPFL, ECAL and UNIL took part in the third China Hardware Innovation Camp (CHIC), where they turned their bright ideas into functional prototypes. They met up one day a week for an entire year in order to pool their engineering, design and project-management know-how and develop blueprints for innovative devices. They then spent two weeks in Hong Kong and Shenzhen building the prototypes. Their inventions ranged from a connected watch for autistic children to a probe for measuring water levels – a sign of the participants’ strong social involvement. “By working with organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) to develop the prototypes, students got first-hand exposure to ethical issues,” says Marc Laperrouza, head of the CHIC program.
Connected objects to solve concrete problems
One team developed the Livelo connected probe, for example, which can be used to measure underground water levels, meeting a genuine need. “One out of every ten people on the planet doesn’t have access to drinking water. Remedying that will require effective management of underground water reserves – but existing probes are too expensive,” says a student on the Livelo project team. The team worked with the ICRC to design a system that is five times cheaper; now the ICRC will test the device out in the field. Another team addressed the issue of children’s health, with a connected helmet that contains sensors to measure the amount of UV-ray exposure the child is getting, sending an alert to the parents if a safe limit is exceeded. The helmet works in conjunction with an app allowing parents to record their child’s skin type and receive a notification if the child takes off the helmet.
A third team aimed to make life easier for autistic children and their parents. “When doing our research, we noticed that pictograms are often used to help these children in their daily tasks. So we devised a connected watch that displays images of the tasks they need to carry out and the time they have to do them,” says a student on the project team. Parents can program and manage the displayed images and times from an app on their smartphones. The fourth team came up with a system for making compost at home – without the unpleasant odor and other hassles of typical compost containers. The system also lets users track the compost production cycle. Through all these projects – whether they involved studying the way compost is made, understanding the specific needs of disabled children or meeting strict engineering requirements – the students had a unique opportunity to expand their horizons and acquire new skills.
Cultivating individuals’ ideas within a cross-disciplinary team
“These cross-disciplinary projects exposed students to real-world constraints. They had to find a focus for their research that was both interesting and relevant to their studies, while respecting the needs of other team members,” says EPFL professor Denis Gillet, one of the students’ supervisors. This teamwork wasn’t always easy, but the students clearly enjoyed it. Now they’ll serve as mentors for the next lot of participants. And while the aim of the CHIC program is not necessarily for students to go on to launch their inventions on the market, they can certainly head in that direction if they so wish.
CHIC is an elective program offered by the College of Humanities as part of the Minor in Science, Technology and Area Studies (STAS) at EPFL.