Designing Open Source Washing Machines for Underdeveloped Nations

by Ostatic Staff - Mar. 23, 2010

What can you make with a bicycle tire, some bamboo, and an old electric motor from a photocopier? If you're three clever art students from France, you'll make a solar-powered clothes washer.

Aside from being eco-friendly, this smart little machine could change the way people in under-developed nations tackle the challenge of having clean clothes to wear. The Open Source Washing Machine Project got underway in the spring of 2008 during a workshop examining ways to implement open source hardware to improve the quality of life in impoverished nations.

On the surface, the project seems pretty straightforward; draw up some plans for a do-it-yourself washing machine and freely distribute them to anyone who needs them. The scope and challenge of that effort quickly became apparent, however. "We had to rethink the economical, sociological and technical concepts of washing clothes in a consciousness of sustainable development and respect of the natural and human environment. We had to rethink the implication of technology in simple daylife, through the millenary painful activity of washing clothes," reads the project's Web site.

To create practical open source washing machine technology, there are several issues that need to be addressed. For instance, rotating washers are very effective at getting clothes clean, but also more expensive to build. Vibrating systems are less expensive and easier to build, but don't wash as well. The development team is testing different ways to agitate clothing in a washer while keeping building and maintenance costs down.

Another problem the group is attempting to address is how to make the washer adaptable to the environment in which it's being built. The bamboo reeds used to construct the washer's drum may be freely available in some countries, but inaccessible in others.

Although the project's team has numerous obstacles to overcome, the idea is a great one. Clean clothing is a real problem in many under-developed countries, leading to all kinds of health and hygiene problems. According to project data[PDF], the mother of a family of seven in Dakar, Senegal washes clothes by hand three times a week. Each washing session typically takes seven hours to complete. Surely, there has to be a better way, and the team from the Open Source Washing Machine Project intends to find it.

Image courtesy of the Open Source Washing Machine Project.