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No Free Lunch

When engineers do good

/ 04:04 AM February 25, 2020

Engineering is a profession I actually found myself seriously thinking I should have pursued instead, at a time I was about to complete my Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, major in Agricultural Economics, at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños. Having studied at the Philippine Science High School, I was among those who strayed off from a career path in “hard” science, as our mentors apparently envisaged for us, going instead into the social sciences. An engineering course and career would have fulfilled that, but the pull in that direction came a bit too late for me to redirect my career without substantial cost and disruption.

Not that I regret being an economist. I’ve seen too many engineers, and scientists in general, miss looking at the economics of their inventions, then wonder why the product of their hard work has remained in the pages of scientific journals, or stuck in prototypes, rather than used and adopted. But neither can we economists claim to have all the answers. To my mind, it is when engineering knowledge and economic intuition come together that the product of an engineer’s mind truly helps uplift human lives.

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One can certainly say that with the Bravura

Roasting Machine developed by engineer Ruel M. Mojica, reputed to be the cheapest coffee-roasting machine in the market worldwide. But cheap need not mean lacking in sophistication. Dr. Mojica’s machine is described as the first-ever vertical coffee roaster, itself an innovation that permits more even roasting, and is driven by a microcontroller that permits automatic operation. His invention was motivated by his observation that coffee farmers—which his very own parents were—could receive far higher incomes if they would not stop at selling raw coffee beans, but add value to their farm product. Roasting, according to him, is the single most value-adding operation in coffee production. Indeed, coffee farmers now using his machine have raised their incomes by at least 50 percent.

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Similarly, Dr. Michael Gragasin’s invention of a compact corn mill and impeller rice mill makes the crucial value-adding operation of milling palay into rice widely accessible to farmers, in a country where rice farmers’ incomes place them among the country’s poor. An all too common scene in rice-growing areas is the stark contrast between the humble homes of farmers and the palatial houses of the millers and traders who buy their produce, suggesting lopsided gains in the rice value chain. Rice farmers traditionally sell their palay at low farmgate prices to commercial-scale millers either directly or via traders, receiving the least net income in the value chain, often barely able to recover production costs. Gragasin’s mill, ranging in cost from only P28,000 to P350,000 (vs. traditional mills costing P1-3 million each), can be manufactured domestically and use locally available spare parts, and are thus within reach of groups of farmers. Needing less power to function, his mills also bring down the costs of rice production, and could eventually lower the price Filipinos pay for the staple.

Mojica and Gragasin are among four latest recipients of the Manila Water Foundation Prize for Engineering Excellence, honoring engineers with notable contributions to solve development challenges in water, sanitation, environment, and sustainability. Another awardee is engineer Alexis Belonio, whose rice husk gasifier stove turns the ubiquitous waste product into a safe, smokeless fuel that can substitute for liquefied petroleum gas in household cooking. Foregoing royalties, Belonio’s design was made freely accessible to small manufacturers, and has found its way into other countries like Vietnam and India. The fourth awardee is Dr. Francis Aldrine Uy, inventor of the USHER (Universal Structural Health Evaluation and Recording) System, a device that allows constant monitoring of the structural integrity of buildings and bridges. Occupants of buildings now using USHER can feel more secure as it minimizes their vulnerability to earthquakes.

Thank God for engineers, especially those with a keen economic sense. They make life better for the rest of us.

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TAGS: Bravura Roasting Machine, Cielito F. Habito, coffee-roasting machine, engineering, No Free Lunch, Ruel M. Mojica
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