The Freeplay Wind-Up Radio (FPR2) connects individuals who live in rural areas to public broadcasting services. For many of these communities, municipal grid electricity is frequently unavailable, leaving families reliant on batteries to power their household appliances. Apart from being costly, batteries deplete and in many instances are simply unavailable. Radios without power leave remote communities without access to the flow of public information provided over Frequency Modulated (FM) and Amplitude Modulation (AM) broadcasts.
Trevor Baylis, a British inventor, attempted to resolve this problem when he coupled mechanical-era principles to contemporary Printed Circuit Board (PCB) technology to form a working radio that did not require any external power source. However, it was the two South African entrepreneurs, Rory Stear and Chris Staines, who really understood how such technology could have a direct and positive impact on resource-poor communities, and developed the Baygen radio into the multinational company Freeplay (Formely Baygen) to incubate and manufacture the product.
The design of the radio was carried out by … XYZ Design (previously Syzygy) and Nicro manufactured the product in Cape Town with a staff compliment that included disabled individuals and convicted felons. Such an organsiational setup created employment for previously neglected or sidelined members of society. This unique mix of technology, transnational collaboration, and reintegration was celebrated by the then South African president, Nelson Mandela, in this speech available HERE
As its name suggests, the Freeplay Wind Up Radio uses human kinetic energy to overcome dependency on municipal and battery sources of electricity. When the crank handle at the rear of the radio is wound for about 17 seconds, a listening time of 1 hour is available. This “free” energy is provided via a mechanical assembly of spring bobbins, gears, motor and Printed Circuit Board (PCB). On winding the crank handle, and when the spring bobbins are fully wound up, energy is stored due to the spring wanting to unwind. Instead of freely unwinding, the springs being coupled to a gear chain and motor assembly, generate and transfer electricity to the radio’s circuitry.
The radio has been largely deployed in a humanitarian guise for emerging environments in collaborations with organizations such as UNICEF and WWF. It has also been used in disaster zones, where communication infrastructure has been destroyed by natural events such as earthquakes. In the case of South Africa, the radio has been successfully used to assist in disseminating information on HIV/AIDS awareness and how communities need to engage and manage the epidemic. Not only has the radio been used in demanding environments, but also for recreation, for example nature lovers have also made use of the Wind Up Radio while camping. Five years after its inception, over 2.5 million units had been sold to individuals and communities throughout the world.
INTERESTING TRIVIA ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE FREEPLAY WIND UP RADIO:
- The Freeplay Wind Up Radio (FPR2) was initially called the Baygen radio. The word is derived from half of the inventor’s surname Baylis and the word generator. However, after frequent confusion arose in the market, with many consumers requesting the Beijing radio, the word Freeplay was ultimately adopted. The new branding literately described the benefits and ideology of the product.
- From commission of the design of the FPR2, it took the design team only eight weeks to design and engineer a working prototype, which was provided to investors in order to unlock funding. On presentation of the prototype, the only concern was the crank handle operation which, as the following point indicates, eventually comprised 80% of the overall development time.
- Field workers reported that a child broke the crank handle off the FPR2’s predecessor, the FPR1, and due to fear of being punished by the community who collectively owned the device, ran away from home. The product failure was by no means the child’s fault, but rather due to plastic stress concentrations, and an ability to wind the handle incorrectly. This real life example of how engineering failure has direct social consequences, inspired the design team to come up with a more appropriate design. The FPR2 resolved this crank handle problem with a novel angled and off-centre hinge point (see image below), which not only prevents rotation in the wrong direction, it also automatically folded away after use. This design was patented and used on successive Freeplay products.
- The tooling for the FPR2 was provided by Fastmould Specialists, an injection moulding and tooling facility in Cape Town, South Africa. Due to the lack of Computer Aided Design (CAD) programs during the development of the product, and the speed at which the project was implemented, many of the final design details were literally measured off the handmade prototypes! When new tools were commissioned as the product grew in popularity, a formal CAD data pack was created from a variety of samples and technical details.
- An industrial design decision was taken by the team at the early stage of development to create a user experience that was holistic. In other words, the product should convey a tactile and engaging experience throughout the product, and not constrained to a single face experience. The result is that the product is asymmetrical from all perspectives, which in turn prompts the user to explore the form and ‘disappearing’ surfaces from all angles. However, although successful in use, photographing this form was notoriously difficult, and as most publications realised, orthographic views and not isometric views worked best.
Winner: South African Bureau of Standards, Design for Development Award, 1996
Museum: Permanent Collection Victoria & Albert Museum Collection, London 1998
Museum: The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York 2005
Design Team: Byron Qually, Roelf Mulder, Etienne Rijkheer, and Richard Perez
Design and Manufacture: Cape Town, South Africa
Launch Date: 1996