The Gen4 Gearbox

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A Challenge Overcome Through an Amazing Answer to Prayer

By Abe Wright, Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer

text message: "Not good"This was the text message I received from Greg Bixler, my co-founder and CEO, last December. He followed it with several pictures of a LifePump from Zimbabwe that had experienced a rare but catastrophic early mechanical failure. Our field partners in Zimbabwe discovered that the gearbox, the blue box on top of the LifePump that connects the handles to the pump drive rods, was broken and leaking gooey grease. Fortunately, our partners had a spare gearbox and were able to repair the pump. However, failure is obviously not an option when we claim that a LifePump should operate for 5 to 10 years without any maintenance.

Within a week, the Design Outreach R&D team had assembled a “Tiger Team,” which is a group of experts brought together to solve a critical issue—think ‘NASA engineers tasked with returning the Apollo 13 astronauts safely to earth’. As urgent and important as the Apollo 13 rescue was, there are also thousands of people in communities around the world depending on DO engineers for safe water and life through a well-engineered LifePump. With that sense of urgency, we got to work.

Many LifePumps experience more than 25 million handle rotations—in a single year! Designing a durable, long-lasting hand pump requires high-performance engineering. Our first challenge as a team was the humbling realization that we lacked the specialized technical expertise needed to solve the gearbox problem and not inadvertently create new ones. We needed the “world’s expert” in gearbox design. I remember writing in our Tiger Team project charter, “Objective #1: Find the world’s expert in gearbox design.” It seemed like a long shot at the time, but that was our need and prayer.

We knew a critical situation like this demanded a God-sized solution, so we prayed a bold and specific prayer. We asked God to send us the world’s expert in gearboxes to solve the problem. We had no idea what would happen or how God would provide someone with that kind of very specialized expertise.

God answered our prayer a short three days later. In speaking to one of our engineering volunteers, Jim Ordo, Greg Bixler mentioned that we were rethinking the gearbox design but lacked the technical resources, and that we needed to find “the world’s leading gearbox designer.” Jim replied, “I know a guy.”

A LifePump in a field Don Klemen, a recently retired engineer, worked with Jim for decades in previous careers, and Don was by all accounts a world’s expert in gearboxes. Within a week, Don was on the phone with Jim Ordo and me to start digging into the gearbox challenge. It was clear within a few weeks that Don knew more about gearboxes than anyone else we knew and was our answer to prayer.

Don is more than “just a guy,” as mentioned by Jim Ordo. Don is the holder of over 100 patents and has 42 years of experience in working with gears, including those for Rolls- Royce aircraft engines.

Don is part of the afore-mentioned Tiger Team of engineers and technical experts who have been dedicating hundreds of hours to design the next generation gearbox.

The Tiger Team has accomplished much in a short period of time. Since the team first met in January 2021, they have been able to diagnose the likely cause of the gearbox failure and design and test the next generation gearbox for LifePump—what we call “Gen4.” Not only has the team figured out how to eliminate the possibility of the catastrophic failure observed in Zimbabwe, they have also found opportunities to improve durability, manufacturability, and to simplify future field service of the gearbox.

But this is more than an engineering story; although, as an engineer, it is exhilarating to be problem solving along with some truly brilliant and humble people. We are doing it for a much greater reason. Our team’s efforts are being channeled into a solution that will ensure that LifePump provides future generations with safe water and hope for the future—so that when someone’s mother, child, wife, or grandmother turns the handles, the precious and priceless gift of water will flow freely. This is simply what we do, our mission at Design Outreach. We are privileged to have the opportunity to refocus engineering resources on alleviating global poverty and building bridges for the Gospel.

 

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