Washing Machine Project - hero

Sub-£30 washing machine brightens laundry days for low-income families

Image credit: Washing Machine Project

Engineering students at the University of Bristol are refining a hand-spun washing machine that could change the lives of millions of people around the world.

Eight Bristol engineering students are refining a hand-spun washing machine. The $35 (£28) product from the Washing Machine Project has been designed to save around 20 hours of hand-washing chores per week.

3,000 of the cheap but effective bare-bones washing machines will be delivered in 2022, mostly to refugee camps but also to low-income families in the UK.

The Bristol firm is led by University of Bristol alumnus Navjot Sawhney - a former Dyson engineer - who dreamt up the idea during a sabbatical in India.

Some six billion people around the world live without a washing machine. For many, the problem is a lack of funds, while others may not have consistent access to electricity - or simply no electricity at all.

Sawhney saw the need for hand-spun washing machines while making cooking stoves for a social enterprise in Pondicherry, south-east India, in 2016. Staying in a small village close to the city, he struck up a friendship with a local woman called Divya.

During their long chats he noticed how much of her time was spent on the exhausting work of hand-washing clothes. He promised Divya he’d come up with a solution. Six years later, his machine is ready to be rolled out across the world.

Having developed and manufactured an initial pilot batch, the team now has 3,000 units on order.

Students And Navjot With Washing Machine Project - inline

Image credit: Washing Machine Project

Sawhney has mobilised a team of eight University of Bristol Engineering Design students to help bring the machine up to the best possible spec. Each student is working on one part of the washing machine, from improving the manufacturing process to making its materials more sustainable.

Student Henry Morgan is looking at how to refine the hand crank, including whether a small motor could be linked up to solar panels to make washing clothes even easier. He said: “Engineering for good is what I’ve always wanted to do, so to do something hands on with a humanitarian benefit is amazing.

“Many of the machines will go to refugee camps and really poor areas of the world. It’s hard to think of a more different environment to that than a controlled lab in Bristol, but it’s really nice to see tangible evidence of what we’re doing helping people in difficult circumstances.”

Washing Machine Project Inline

Image credit: Washing Machine Project

The eight students are in their fourth year. In their fifth and final year they will bring their individual research together for a group design project, looking at how to make the washing machine as robust, efficient and user friendly as possible.

Student Paul Ertl is researching the machine’s performance. Armed with strips of stained white t-shirt, he is finding its optimum cycle length, water volume and detergent ratio.

“Knowing that this research will actually be used to improve people’s lives means it’s the most engaged I’ve been on a project,” he said.

“Sometimes it’s actually quite annoying working on something so interesting - people are constantly stopping me to ask what I’m doing and to offer suggestions, plus I’m getting a sore arm from cranking the machine all day!”

Washing Machine Project Inline 2

Image credit: Washing Machine Project

Sawhney said it had been “hugely inspirational and humbling” to work with students so full of ideas: “Gen Z is quite angry at the world they’re inheriting and want to make a difference. When I graduated eight years ago, I jumped at a grad scheme to make vacuum cleaners for rich people. These guys really want to make change.

“The research they are doing will directly change the design of our machine and therefore the product that people use on the ground. They have already given us some really good insights.”

Bristol engineering firm Huxlo, founded and run by former University of Bristol Engineering Design student Matthew Mew, manufactured the pilot batch of machines on a pro bono basis.

Mew said: “The Washing Machine Project has commendable and ambitious goals; our expertise in digital manufacturing has pushed them a little further towards the destination.”

The initiative has conducted ethnographic research in 17 countries, interviewing over 3,000 families, including 900 in Uganda, 800 in Jamaica, Nepal and the Philippines, to gain an insight into their washing tendencies. The Project has also partnered with some of the most prominent international NGOs, such as UNCHR, Save The Children, Oxfam, Care International and Plan International.

Successful pilots of the machine have been carried out in Iraq and Lebanon and the company has received orders from multiple countries.

The Washing Machine Project has already built 200 machines. Over the next year, it will expand to fulfil orders for 3,000 machines in refugee camps and poorer regions in Iraq, India, Lebanon and more. Around 15 per cent of interest in the machine has also come from low-income families in the UK.

Find out more and donate to the Washing Machine Project.

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