MIT STUDENT INVENTOR SEES CLEAR FUTURE
IN ėDESKTOP PRINTER' FOR LOW-COST EYEGLASS LENSES
Saul Griffith Awarded $30,000 Lemelson-MIT
Student Prize for Inventiveness
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (February 19, 2004)—Massachusetts Institute
of Technology doctoral candidate Saul Griffith, whose inventions
include a "desktop printer" for low-cost eyeglass lenses, received
the prestigious $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness
during a ceremony this morning at MIT.
Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, which sponsors
the annual award, cited Griffith's innovative device for manufacturing
low-cost eyeglass lenses and his work creating comic strips that
inspired children to learn about science and engineering as important
reasons he was chosen this year.
"Saul tackles some very challenging real-world problems, yet at
the same time there is a wonderful sense of playfulness and simplicity
to his work," Flemings said. "His low-cost vision-testing and lens-manufacturing
inventions could dramatically improve life for billions of people
in developing countries who cannot access, nor afford, prescription
"It's sometimes easier for engineers and scientists to work on
the next generation of computer chips or the next PDA, but there
are some beautiful problems that a lot of people don't go after
because it's hard to get support and funding and it's incredibly
hard to be successful," Griffith said. "It would be nice if my work
inspired others to address some of these problems and make them
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Griffith’s advances in low-cost lenses sprung from his interests
in rapid prototyping technologies and efficient manufacturing. Using
a process dubbed programmable molding, he created a portable device
similar to a desktop printer that can produce any prescription lens
from a single-mold surface in five to 10 minutes.
The device casts the lenses by applying pressure and constraints
to a programmable membrane, which becomes the mold surface when
under pressure. The current device uses car window tinting film
for the membrane and a reservoir of baby oil for applying the correct
pressure. A large range of lens types, covering the majority of
prescriptions, can be cast from two such mold surfaces.
Traditional lens manufacturing systems require expensive molds
for each lens type. In remote rural areas, it is cost-prohibitive
to maintain a library of thousands of lenses for relatively small
populations of people. The traditional process not only comes with
enormous inventory and handling costs, but also can result in excessive
waste. Griffith's patent-pending device essentially eliminates these
But efficient lens manufacturing is only half the issue. Proper
diagnosis of vision problems is the other half. Current automatic
diagnostic technologies are expensive, fragile and error-prone.
Because they rely on a patient looking at electronically generated
images a few inches away from his or her face, they can lead to
incorrect diagnoses. Plus, highly skilled people are required to
operate these machines.
To resolve this problem, Griffith has created a prototype device
to test the human eye. Patients need only wear the device, which
looks like an oversized pair of goggles, and look at the world around
them. An electronic sensor superimposed on the goggles monitors
the lens in the wearer's eye and adjusts the device's lens to cancel
the refractive errors, thus determining the correct prescription.
In 2001, Griffith and colleague Neil Houghton won the Harvard
Business School Social Enterprise Business Plan Contest for the
concept. They have since started a company called Low Cost Eyeglasses
(www.lowcosteyeglasses.net) to manufacture and market the product.
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Invention Is Fun-damental
Griffith attributes his inventiveness to his nurturing parents,
an artist and an engineer who reside in his native Sydney, Australia.
"I was always tinkering with things I found laying around, just
to get ideas," he recalled. "When you're a kid you don't really
think about it, but you learn a lot about how stuff works. Now,
I can subconsciously draw upon all of the things I broke growing
up. Fortunately, my parents encouraged my toy de-construction!"
Through a project called Howtoons (www.howtoons.org), Griffith
and collaborators Joost Bonsen and Nick Dragotta, seek to instill
that same mischievous spirit of discovery in future generations
of kids. Part comic strip and part science experiment, the one-page
Howtoons help children find imaginative new uses for soda bottles,
plastic buckets, duct tape, balloons, ice, salt and other household
materials. Griffith said the project aims to inspire kids to see
the world not for what it is, but for what it could be.
Tools of Mass Construction
Much of Griffith's research is in industrial materials science and
manufacturing. "I'm influenced by the elegant way nature manufactures
things, which is significantly better, in most cases, than the way
humans do. I hope to develop new manufacturing processes that are
simpler and can make things more efficiently and with less waste.
You can characterize my work as ėtools of mass construction,'" he
Griffith's doctoral thesis at the MIT Media Laboratory explores
the relationship between information and physical structure in materials
and self-assembly. He is looking at ways to build programmatically
assembling machines and materials with higher complexity and function
than current self-assembling systems. His research is sponsored
by the National Science Foundation Center for Bits and Atoms and
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About the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize
The $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is awarded annually to an
MIT senior or graduate student who has created or improved a product
or process, applied a technology in a new way, redesigned a system,
or in other ways has demonstrated remarkable inventiveness. A distinguished
panel of scientists, technologists, engineers and entrepreneurs
selects the winner. This is the 10th year the Lemelson-MIT Program
has given the award.
About the Lemelson-MIT Program
The Lemelson-MIT Program aims to raise the stature of inventors
and provide resources and inspiration to make invention and innovation
more accessible to today's youth. It accomplishes this mission through
outreach activities and annual awards, including the world's largest
prize for invention the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize.
The Lemelson-MIT Program was founded in 1994 at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology by Jerome H. Lemelson, one of the world's
most prolific inventors, and his wife, Dorothy. It is funded by
The Lemelson Foundation, a private philanthropy committed to honoring
the contributions of inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs, and
to inspiring ingenuity in others. More information on the Lemelson-MIT
Program is online at http://web.mit.edu/invent.
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