July 31, 2012

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Utility vehicle and partnerships built in Africa

By Tom Campbell

One week this summer, Purdue University senior David Wilson was sweating bullets onto the dirt floor of a toolshed in Cameroon, Africa, hacksawing his way through a piece of angle iron.

The next week, he was surrounded by million-dollar machines in the climate-controlled environs of a Lafayette, Ind., manufacturing operation, completing a summer internship.

Within the course of a few weeks, the agricultural and biological engineering student learned that good engineering can happen anywhere.

Utility vehicle in Cameroon

The front and rear suspension added to the 2012 BUV softened many of the bumps of the Cameroon roadways. (Photo by Patrick Ransdell)   View Slideshow

Wilson was among Purdue students and faculty who traveled to Cameroon this summer to help a team of Africans build a basic utility vehicle, or BUV, that would not only carry people and produce from place to place but also perform tasks such as pumping water from wells in undeveloped African villages.

“We definitely developed our muscles over there, cutting some of the metal for the front suspension by hand,” said Wilson, who is working at Oerlikon Fairfield as a member of a product design team.

“It may not have been the way we would have done it over here, but still, it was effective,” he said.

The project to build a BUV in Africa started in May 2009, when professor John Lumkes took a team of four students from his ABE 336 course—All Terrain Vehicle Design—on an exploratory mission to Cameroon. The students partnered with the African Center for Renewable Energies and Sustainable Technologies, charged with building a durable, low-cost transport that would be easy to reproduce and handle Africa’s rugged terrain.

In the fall of 2009, a larger group went over with designs for a new BUV made of wood but with an improved transmission.

“They got the chassis built and the motor running, but when we went back in 2011, the chassis was still sitting up on blocks. Nothing else had been done,” Lumkes said.

Utility vehicle in Cameroon

Students Jacqueline Fontaine and David Wilson check the frame dimensions during the assembly. (Photo by Patrick Ransdell) 
View Slideshow

So when Wilson and six Purdue engineers headed back this May, their primary objective was to get the BUV up and running with only locally available parts and materials.

“It’s a real project that is really affecting lives,” Wilson said. “What I get most excited about is that we didn’t come up with an idea here at Purdue. We didn’t say, ‘Oh, here’s a solution to a problem in the world. Let’s go find a place to implement it.’ But it was reversed, where someone in another country said, ‘Can you help us? We want to do this.’”

And that is exactly what they did while learning some valuable lessons along the way.

“The image is that we are going to give some technology to some backwards village in Africa,” said Lumkes. “But in reality, our students would not survive a month in Africa. They are not resourceful enough. We learned a whole lot about what it means to live with the resources you have and to be industrious. Our students bring back much more than we typically bring to them in terms of changed lives, in skill sets, in what they want to do for a career and how they approach the technical side of engineering design.”

All that comes from forming partnerships that outlast any individual projects, said Lumkes, who received the Charles B. Murphy Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award at Purdue in 2011.

“Any real impact we make on the ground could only come through partnerships. We could raise some money at Purdue, buy a $500 windmill, and go to Africa and install it,” Lumkes said. “But if the windmill breaks in four months, what do you have? Nothing but a tower.

“But if we can go there and work with them, the materials and the skills that they have and ultimately get a windmill they can reproduce after we’re gone, then the next time we go back, all of a sudden there are three to four windmills around. And if the windmills break, they can fix them.

“We may have some failures along the way, but our goal all along is to have a partnership with the people. That has taken some time, but that has been the neatest part of this project — us learning, but also seeing a lot of local ownership, too.”


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