Designing the best tarpaulin for the world

Sometimes there are problems which have conflicting objectives which have few numbers associated with them.  Not all operational research needs numerical data.  There are qualitative aspects to O.R. as well as quantitative ones.  And this is about one such problem.

Tina and I support the medical charity MSF, Medecins sans Frontieres, Doctors without Borders.  A recent issue of their newsletter for supporters included a two page spread by Patrick Oger about designing the perfect humanitarian tarpaulin, or tarp.  You can read the article, with pictures, here.  Another blogger has picked up this story, here.

Tarp is used for many different things in emergency situations; it makes shelters for people and animals and equipment; it makes fences; you can cover food with it to protect it from the sun, wind, rain, snow, chemicals; you can use it as ground cover when you are sharing out supplies.
  • It has to be tough so must have strength in all directions.
  • It has to be waterproof.
  • It has to last a long time in harsh conditions, such as strong sunshine or high, gusty winds or heavy rain.
  • It has to be the right size.
  • It should be easy to repair
  • It should be light enough that large numbers can be carried to the place of need easily and quickly
And ... it has to be cheap.  Relief organisations will use thousands of tarps every month.  A tarp that is tough, not heavy, waterproof, and long-lasting, but which costs a fortune to make will not be acceptable.

Patrick Oger was responsible for finding the best tarp at the best price.  He looked for the faults in the tarps which were on the marketplace.  As an engineer, he repeatedly asked the question, "Why?"  Why is this material unsatisfactory?  Why is material A better than material B?  And he asked the question that marks out operational research work - "What happens if ...?" Having found the base material, which used black fibres, he found that the question "What happens if we make the tarp black?" would be answered by "It will be too hot for human shelter".  So he knew that it couldn't be left as a black product.  So he experimented with a coloured coating, to find the optimal colour.

Inevitably, there were some questions which were answered with numerical measurements.  But the psychology was important too, as it is for operational research to gain acceptance by the client; would the relief agencies use something new?  Would the people they served use the tarp?  If so, why?  If not, what was wrong? 

This Chinese company now makes tarps to the MSF specification
His research, carried out on top of his regular job, took three years.  But the product that he specified is now used by many NGOs across the world.  I don't know if he knew the concept of operational research (recherche op√©rationnelle as Patrick is French), but he has followed the methodology successfully.  And if, having read this, you want to support a relief charity, one of Patrick's tarps will only cost about 10 US dollars.


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