Progress for Peanuts

There are big ideas. There are little ideas. And there are little ideas that turn out to be big ideas.

Not everything that you do to improve your material handling processes requires a long, drawn-out cost justification, months of preparation and millions of dollars in capital equipment. Sometimes small innovations or insights can have a huge impact. All it takes is a little ingenuity.

Jock Brandis, a Canadian sound and light engineer living in Wilmington, N.C., offers an example of a small innovation having a big impact that I think everyone in our industry can all learn from. Four years ago Brandis went to Mali, Africa, to help a friend in the Peace Corps repair the water-treatment system in the village where she was stationed. There he observed that the women and children spent hours shelling sun-dried peanuts by hand to feed their families. He also noticed that the villagers were beginning to plant cotton, the country's main export, which can quickly deplete the soil if crops are not rotated or in the absence of fertilizer.

As Brandis knew, peanuts can improve the soil by fixing nitrogen in it, and could complement or replace the cotton the people were growing for sale. Before leaving, Brandis promised the head of the woman's cooperative that he would return in a year with a machine to speed up the shelling.

When he came back to the United States he searched the Internet but couldn't find anything that would work in the poor village. He eventually contacted a researcher at the University of Georgia who said that such a machine was one of the unrealized goals of sustainable agricultural in developing areas of the world. So Brandis set out to invent one.

After a number of prototypes and help from friends he successfully developed a simple, indestructible and inexpensive machine that shells nuts 40 times faster than by hand. Shaped like a butter churn, the device has two nesting concrete drums and a steel crank. Using less than $50 in materials, the machine can be assembled wherever it might be needed in fiberglass molds. Accepting a range of nut types and sizes, one machine can reportedly serve the needs of a village of 2,000 people.

After introducing what's now known as the Malian peanut sheller, Brandis joined forces with a group of former Peace Corps volunteers to found the Full Belly Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to designing and distributing such technologies. Today the shelling machine's design is available for anyone to download and assemble wherever it might be needed. Plans and step-by-step assembly instructions are available at instructables (www.instructables.com) an online library of do-it-yourself projects.

Other than liking it when the engineer is the hero, I share this inspiring story because it shows, 213 years after Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, that there are still opportunities in our modern world for simple, mechanical devices to have a huge impact on people's lives.

In your warehouse or factory, process improvements and new technology are not going to save the soil in Africa or potentially improve nutrition for millions of people. But as Bert Moore's column ("Low Hanging Fruit," p. 72), and Tonya Vinas's story on visual management techniques ("Go Visual," p. 28) in this issue show, simple changes can have a dramatic impact on operating costs, efficiency and employee safety. All you need is a little ingenuity.

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