Most farmland in India is rural, and far from government-run soil testing labs. Farmers need to send their soil samples to these labs and wait for two to four weeks for the results. This is expensive and inconvenient, as they need to sow their next crop without delay. As a result, farmers end up avoiding soil tests and simply follow recommendations from nearby farms or local agro dealers. This leads to huge amounts of over-fertilization in the hope of safeguarding crop yields, but in the long term is detrimental to the health of their land. The Murugappa Chettiar Research Center had developed a unique soil testing technology called alternative analysis test (AAT) that could help with this situation. They partnered with Joseph Design to create a portable product using their technology to address the growing agricultural crisis.
Joseph Design’s goal was to transform the AAT technology from a fixed lab into a portable soil test kit that could be taken directly to the farmer. The resulting Portable Alternate Analysis Test (PAAT) kit is a modular lightweight system made out of aircraft-grade aluminum that can produce soil test results within hours rather than weeks. It consists of a custom-designed set of testing equipment that nests together and fits into a portable suitcase that opens up and transforms into a fully functional table-top soil testing lab. The design takes all the necessary equipment that is used in a brick and mortar AAT lab and redesigns them to work out of a portable suitcase. This allows the PAAT kit to fit onto the back of a motorcycle and penetrate the most remote villages, giving farmers access to valuable and timely soil test results.
The AAT labs follow a stringent process using specific equipment to achieve the accuracy of their results. There are numerous pieces of equipment including lab hardware like pipets, petri dishes, whatman paper, weighing scales, shakers, etc. There is also a host of digital equipment like a computer, scanner, and printer. A lab technician needs to follow a specific step by step sequence with each soil sample. In order to simplify the cognitive load of tracking the samples through the test, we created a color-coding system that improves the user experience and reduces the chance of human error. Given the amount of equipment, we needed to engineer each part to nest within each other and stack in a compact configuration. When the suitcase is open, the user sees a central tray that acts as a work-surface. Notes, whatman paper, a weigh scale, pipete and other essential items are located on the top panel for easy access. The user can remove and hang the development box and equipment tray on either side of the suitcase. A development lightbox can be removed from below the tray when needed. The top panel folds down giving access to the digital hardware. This design creates a simple and compact mobile lab that can be set up instantaneously in any environment.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of the farmer's needs, we visited various farms as well as the conventional brick and mortar AAT Laboratory. The first step was to familiarise ourselves with their proprietary soil testing process. This included steps such as procuring soil, creating a chromatogram from the solution, and generating a soil health recommendation for the farmer. This in-depth understanding of the farmer's needs and the soil test procedure, allowed us to design the PAAT kit in a manner that followed the same sequence as it would in a normal lab. The difference was that the PAAT kit was scaled-down and simplified to be compact and portable.