Constraints help creative students turn a Salad Spinner into a medical device

by Robert S. Siegel on June 8, 2010

Constraints can be a tool for great creative thinking and not barriers to be avoided, as they are so often considered.  Handled properly, constraints provide the framework and the motivation that generates breakthrough thinking.  Constraints are your friends. The constraints that led a team of students to create a medical device from a salad spinner provides an excellent example.

Doctors in the developing world desperately need centrifuges, medical devices that separate out blood cells, and among other things, aid in determining if a patient has anemia. Centrifuges are expensive, and worse, electricity to run those centrifuges can be hard to find in developing areas and expensive when it is available.

A group of Rice University students took on the challenge of finding a low cost non-electric alternative to the electric centrifuges.  The team Inundated their minds on items that spin, including bicycles, spinning toys, and eggbeaters looking for a device capable of spinning test tubes of blood.  The constraints they faced included the device’s cost, limits on electricity, and the overall harsh environment of the regions where the devices are needed.

The team ultimately developed a brilliant solution – Brilliant for its cost and easy availability; a pump action Salad Spinner they modified to hold test tubes.  The salad spinner spins blood samples at 950 rpm for a cost of about $35.  Battery powered or electric centrifuges cost hundreds of dollars. The students will test their version of the centrifuge in real life situations this summer.

Without constraints these students would not have had the impetus and the framework for creating a potential lifesaving, cost saving medical improvement.


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