Tech Innovation

Ashley Dara Dotz Uses Frugal Innovation to Save Lives

Dana McMahan Writer
Ashley Dara Dotz

From creating a zero-gravity 3D printer to developing 3D-printed umbilical clamps, innovative humanitarian and designer Ashley Dara Dotz is at the forefront of a movement that’s helping the world do more with less.

As a child, Ashley Dara Dotz dreamed of becoming the first woman on Mars. After learning poor eyesight would keep her from flying to outer space, she pivoted to an even bigger dream.

“It’s funny how life comes back around,” Dotz said. “Even though I’m not an astronaut I get to work with them and develop tools for them.”

Break Dancing in a space suit.

Dotz was part of the Made in Space team that developed the first 3D printer used in space. But helping put a zero gravity 3D printer on the International Space Station (ISS) is not the proudest accomplishment for this San Francisco-based innovator.

Instead, she’s most proud of co-founding Field Ready, which provides humanitarian supplies made in the field.

Dotz sees common challenges in her work with people in outer space and disaster zones on Earth.

“It’s about people at the edges,” she said. “We can’t just send a cargo ship to the ISS. If someone has an emergency, we can’t just put someone in a rocket. In disaster zones, we can’t get in through traditional logistics or supply chains.”

She faces similar challenges in places where people are struggling to survive catastrophes. As she pointed out in a recent TED talk, difficult situations require practical solutions.

“My passion is to figure out how do we support people in these extreme environments and empower them to not only survive, but thrive,” Dotz said. Her means of doing that lies within a growing movement dubbed “frugal innovation.”

“This is what people have been doing for centuries: Make what you can with what you have,” Dotz said, pointing out that the concept has been renamed to capture people’s attention.

Jhonson and Dara Haiti

Frugal innovation boils down to understanding the problem and creating the least-wasteful solution. An iconic example of this movement is a $25 infant warmer. Frugal innovation can also help in emergency situations.

In post-earthquake Haiti, a pressing problem was getting medical supplies to clinics. The process of getting a shipping container full of supplies to Haiti and the materials to the right place can take six months to three years. And if someone does make it there, Dotz said, “you’re stuck with what you brought.”

“People think you can just Amazon Prime things to Port-au-Prince,” Dotz said, explaining that it’s often more complicated than anyone can imagine.

For Dotz, the pivotal moment came when her friend, a volunteer in a medical clinic in Haiti, ran out of umbilical clamps, and resorted to taking off her last pair of latex gloves to fashion a tie.

Jhonson teaching in Haiti

“Sometimes it’s figuring out how to hack things in the field,” Dotz said, but, of course, this was no solution. Thankfully, there was another option.

Dotz used a 3D printer, and — working with locals — was able to produce the much-needed umbilical clamps on demand and at a fraction of the cost of shipping them in. Once used, they sanitized and ground up the clamps, and the material was re-used for other supplies.

“You never know in a disaster zone what you’re going to need, so having the ability to tailor what you need and produce it — it’s saving time and money which in turn can save lives,” Dotz said, reflecting that this project helped empower the locals to produce what they need to provide additional support.

Dotz has worked with nonprofits since she was 14 years old. Having faced self-doubt and learning disabilities growing up, Dotz found a turning point when she discovered industrial design.

3D printer

“Design really broadened my world,” she said. “Suddenly I could learn with my hands.”

Surrounding herself with brilliant people, especially those who think differently than she does has helped Dotz build confidence and sharpen skills.

Now she’s part of a movement full of creative people developing solutions all over the world.

One iconic example of the frugal innovation movement is a $25 infant warmer that goes back to the basics. This swaddle with warming capabilities doesn’t require electricity. It demonstrates how frugal innovation allows for more access to tools and products needed in vulnerable populations.

“Incubators used to cost about $30,000; they’re expensive to fix and ship in, you have to use constant electric, and in a lot of environments there are rolling power outages and you can fry circuit boards,” Dotz explained. So far more than 200,000 infants in India and Uganda have benefited from the $25 infant warmer. It goes to show how frugal solutions can problem solve in simple ways.

Ashley Dara Dotz

“Sometimes when you have limitations it pushes you to come up with something out of the box,” Dotz said. “It’s more about efficiency and quality than doing things for the sake of novelty. It’s about how we make affordable products that last.”

This approach also led nonprofit product company D-Rev to develop a simple but high-performance prosthetic knee that costs $80 instead of a typical $20,000. It also inspired Dotz’s teammates at Field Ready to design printable replacement water pipeline joints that help deliver clean water to homes in Nepal.

Dotz said designers are really just beginning to tap into the possibilities of this movement. New technologies are emerging, prices are coming down, and machines are getting faster and more dependable.

FIeld Ready Core team

“It’s incredible what people can create,” Dotz said.

“Think about how we can have dramatic effect for future generations.”

She invites makers of all types to join her in the movement and has joined forces with Humanitarian Makers, a group dedicated to scaling up and building frugal innovation.

“It’s about creating a community to step into the future,” she said, “and we have to do it all together.”

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