Student Mini Grant: BlueLab Thailand

blue elephant next to words Bluelab Thailand

BLUElab Thailand unites students from multiple disciplines at the University of Michigan in pursuit of creating sustainable solutions for flood mitigation in our partner district of Mae Chan, Thailand with the collaboration of Chiang Mai University students and faculty in the PURPLElab organization  as well as Michigan-based supporters such as BLUElab, the Center for Socially-Engaged Design and University of Michigan faculty.

Mae Chan's drainage system.
Mae Chan's drainage system. 

About BLUElab video 

Our ultimate goal is to create viable, sustainable solutions that satisfies two specific flood-related needs of the Mae Chan community. Currently, we are in the process of creating and selecting designs. We are translating these designs into physical concepts and prototypes, testing them with our newly built pipe-simulation test rig.

Clearing Debris From Inside the Pipes

The majority of drainage pipes in Mae Chan are regularly clogged by sediment and debris from runoff water and city waste. Khun Nakorn informed us that the city’s flood-drainage and sewage pipes are combined, and therefore, we cannot prevent the inflow of waste that fill up the pipes. Thus, there needs to be an efficient way to clean up the clogged pipes, which will drastically help the increase the flow of floodwater out of the city. Our team is currently working on a hydraulic waterjet nozzle with Khun Nakorn that removes sediment by shooting through the pipe. This original prototype was successfully tested on-site on our previous trip; we are looking to build on this design with feedback and finalize it for real use.

Controlling the Flow of Water through the City

Some areas of Mae Chan, such as the school and the market, are much more sensitive to flood due to lower altitude. Therefore, Khun Nakorn, Rong Daeng, and many locals stressed the importance of being able to control where and how flood water flows through the city, as well as preventing the backflow of water. To do so, the municipality currently uses metal plates and recycled tires to block several drainage points. According to our Mae Chan stakeholders, these methods are both hard and inefficient to install and maintain due to sharp debris and unrelenting water pressure. Thus, we are currently designing an inflatable blockage that can be easily installed/removed and effectively block and control the flow of water We plan on finishing this prototype this semester, and plan to test it in our trip this May. Successfully doing so can help protect important economic and safety areas from the flood.

While it is difficult and costly to quantify the economic value created by our prototypes, let alone correctly measuring the impact of each specific flood. We plan to gage the success of our design by how well it satisfies the needs of the Mae Chan community. This includes feedback from Khun Nakorn, who will be using these prototypes during floods on site. In addition, we want our final design to be made of materials that are accessible to other communities, allowing for scalability for other areas facing similar flooding issues. Furthermore, our project stresses the importance of socioeconomic and environmental sustainability and making a positive impact on local communities. If we are able to stay true to these values while staying within our budget, our initiative will be considered a success and we hope it will be able to aid other communities in the future.

The next steps for BLUElab Thailand is to finalize as well as manufacture our prototypes, testing them in our new built test rigs to . In the Summer of 2019, we plan to travel back to Mae Chan with these prototypes in order to complete our prototype assessment through feedbacks, codesign, and collaborative concept generation techniques. We will designate our time between interacting with the individuals within the residential community in Mae Chan and collaborating with PURPLElab, our sister organization at Chiang Mai University. At the university, our team will collaborate with PURPLElab students, using CAD software and a machine workshop to further develop and improve our prototype. The rest of our time will be spent in Mae Chan for on-site testing and data collection, as well as feedback on our designs from local officials and residents.

With BLUElab teams, projects do not end after a summer. They are multiple, year-long, commitments to a community in which we continue to participate in until it is determined the project is able to function without our assistance. This year specifically will be the fourth time BLUElab Thailand has traveled to the Mae Chan community, and it will not be our last. We have made an ongoing commitment to understand the needs of the community and learn from its residents. In addition to addressing the issue related to flooding, we will continue to assess the needs of the community through interviewing local leaders as well as community members, and keeping in contact with them during the school year. As the relationships with our project partners strengthen over time, we will gain further insight into each others lives. This platform of mutual understanding is what enables us to identify new collaborative spaces in Mae Chan for future years, allowing new generations of BLUElab and PURPLElab to engage in meaningful projects. In doing so, we will be able to help preserve the livelihood of people in the Mae Chan district while maintaining friendships that forge cross cultural understanding.

The Mini Grant funds has been tremendous in helping us acquire raw materials, as well as the PVC pipe, to build our two new test rigs that we will be utilizing to test our prototypes. Each of these test rigs are devoted to one of the two prototypes that we are going to build. The rest of the fund will be allocated to raw materials and manufacturing costs for the two prototypes. Pictures of the test rigs can be seen below:

building test rigs that simulate the drainage system in Mae Chan
Test rigs that simulate the drainage system in Mae Chan.  


Building two text rigs that simulate the drainage system in Mae Chan
Building the text rigs that simulate the drainage system in Mae Chan. 

Our Library mentor, Paul Grochowski, has been very supportive in connecting us to valuable resources such as the ACSE Library, which includes books, journals, and standards from the America Society of Civil Engineer that contains useful information and leads about common solutions for problems around flood mitigation, control of water flow, and infrastructure. Moreover, he has also introduced us to the 3D Printing lab in the Duderstadt Center, which could potentially be crucial when we manufacture our prototypes in the coming months. We are very grateful to be receiving Paul’s guidance and are looking forward to working with him even more in the future.

Group photo of students participating in BLUElab Thailand.