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LifeStraw Update
Sarah Rich, 4 May 06

img1.jpg You may remember our earlier coverage of the LifeStraw, which was one of the 100 finalists in the 2005 INDEX: Design Awards. INDEX: exclusively selects entrants whose designs dramatically improve the lives of many people; a requirement that's clearly a defining feature of the LifeStraw concept.

The device functions as an individual water filter, which eliminates dangerous bacteria via iodinized chambers inside the straw as water travels into the user's mouth. It goes without saying that this invention could play a tremendous role in reducing the incidence of water-borne illness if successful. But according to today's BBC, that may be a big 'if'.

The design has now moved beyond prototype stages to production in China, where costs can be kept relatively low. But the BBC highlights brewing controversy over the cost - and hence the practicality and potential success - of producing the LifeStraw, presenting criticism from some aid organizations over what is perceived to be affordable, but may not be.

LifeStraws come out to approximately $3.50, for a product which lasts through 700 liters of water, or around six months to one year. A spokesman for the UK's WaterAid emphasized that on a daily income of less than $1 per day, $3.50 is not a reasonable price, and that LifeStraw does not address a potentially more fundamental problem: education - particularly for girls.

"He added that he felt the problem is that many people live very far away from their water, often walking a total of 20km or more carrying a weight of 25 kilos.
'That's what takes it out of them - the long journey,' he explained, 'The LifeStraw isn't going to prevent that long journey, even if it does improve the water they drink.'
'They're not going to have the education, because they're not going to have the time. It's girls in particular who suffer, because it's women and girls who have to collect the water.
'It only costs a charity like WaterAid £15 per person to provide them with water, sanitation and hygiene education, which, provided there is decent water resource management in the country, will last them a lifetime.
'At that rate, $3.50 is expensive.'"

The argument sounds fair enough. Indeed, lack of education for young women leaves populations vulnerable to all sorts of problems, many of which are health-related. And three days' worth of income spent on a single device sounds steep...But it's a tough one to reconcile. To be guaranteed safe drinking water for six months, to be free from the risk of devastating intestinal illnesses -- these seem worth 3 days of finances. If the LifeStraw can be produced and distributed without sacrificing improvements in education, it's hard to imagine it wouldn't be a very real life-saver.

Thanks, Chris.

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Well a few things...

1 You dont tend to drink that much water per day.

2 The suggested lifespan of the straw is likely half what it actauly can manage thats typical f all filters.

3 That price is the starting price as production goes on and ramps up you can bet the cost will go down.

This means that wealthier poor people will be able to get the straw soon either by working an extra odd job or whatever. Thier straw likely will last them several years. By then the price of a new straw will likely be under 3 bucks.

The poorer poor will have to wait a year or two or perform several odd jobs or beg more or whatever.

But then they likely will stretch out the use of such a straw by a factor of 10 or more simply by only using it when they NEED to.

Posted by: wintermane on 4 May 06

I would be willing to spend double or triple the cost on a lifestraw just to have it in my backpack. It would be even better if by doing so I could give one to someone who realy needs it.

Posted by: Thom Worlledge on 5 May 06

I like Thom's idea - sell it as a camping accessory for the ultralite crowd for $30 in the developed world and use the excess $26.50 to subsidize its distribution in the third world.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 5 May 06

Yeah, I like that idea as well - charge more for it in the outdoor industry with the extra proceeds going to reduce the cost in poor countries.

Hmmm, perhaps this is a pricing strategy that MANY companies ought to adopt.

Posted by: donna on 5 May 06

The problem with differentiated pricing (which I like in theory) is that somebody will buy them in developing country at 3:50 and sell them in developed country for $20.....

One way to deal with that is make the cheap version look different enough to not be appealing at higher price. Really ugly or larger than needed, etc. This may help a bit.

Posted by: Alexandre Rafalovitch on 5 May 06

Um nope they already do this alot eother others things.

Many things cost far less in poor contries then it does in developed countries.

Gneeraly this has to do with such things as ... less stringent if any standards. Less taxes. Lower cost of lbaoir as in who sells the straw.

MOST of the cost of a thing sold in a store is the cost of the store rent and the employies of the store.

And again if you give oit time the price will go down alot.

Posted by: wintermane on 5 May 06

Ah, yes, this is a pickle of a debate. Both sides do have valid points. And thus, a conflict may be born.

Anyway, to avoid the silly back and forth that always arises, how about the concept of a cooperation between the two goals. You have education and clean water as two goals. The idea of pricing the Lifestraws higher here in the west is by far not a bad idea, especially if as much as possible of the profit went to financing the production and distrobution of Lifestraws where they are need the most. If also marketed as both something very handy and a "life-saving" purchase (ones purchase gives other people fresh water as well) then most of the points about shifty, "cheaply" sold straws will fall away. (Nothing quite like guilt to help one chose to pay a bit more and make a difference.)

And as LifeStraws could also have coporate sponsors. (The low price, that will continue to be lowered as production increases should make it for nice PR as well.)

Now how about tying it together with education, if the goal is to not only have a clean water supply, but also educate. Then perhaps either part of the profits made upon selling LSs here in the west can go to that, or any donation to LSs are split both ways, education and water.

Just a thought there, not sure about the practicalities of such a setup, but someone had to say it.

Anyway, I really do hope that the Lifestraw can help to build a foundation for a constant source of clean and healthy water, not only in africa, but anywhere else needed! The price is low (and can become quite a bit lower.) and I'm sure that any campaign where the price is so low, and the difference that can be made is reasonable, will become at least a success. (If marketed properly.)

Well, to sum what I just said nicely up: This is interesting, and it has potential. (Pardon the rambling, I just woke up.)

Posted by: Papilionoidea on 6 May 06

Personally, I'd like to get my hands on one and get a breakdown which shows where the $3.50 is going. Based on other product programs on which I've worked, if that's sales price, the actual cost to produce would be somewhere between $0.50 and $0.80 (rule of thumb: divide retail price by 4 or 5). From the look of it and from what I recall while working at a company that got into the water filtration market, the higher price sounds about right. I'll even round it up to a full $1 to make it more accurate based on what I recall about filtration products being expensive to produce. But that leaves $2.50. Where does it go?

If I were the manufacturer I might want 40% profit over that cost. So if the cost to manufacture is a full $1, I'd sell it at $1.40 to whoever placed the OEM order. The design originator (like my old company) will tack on another 35% on average and sell it to retail for $1.89, who then go off and double the price when they sell it to the consumer. $3.70. Close.

I realize this is guesswork, but this sounds to me like business as usual. I'd point out that previous reports had the per piece price at $2.

And btw, why is this product not being considered for production in Africa?

Posted by: csven on 6 May 06

btw, I can't multiply or divide today. The mistakes should be obvious and aren't significant to the conclusion.

However, because I'm sure there are people out there with a better handle on pricing than me, does anyone have some numbers? I'm thinking of getting in touch with an old co-worker who could educate me a bit more on this.

Posted by: csven on 6 May 06

In bulk after a few inintial runs to work out glitches and a cost reduction phase or 2 you SHOULD be able to get a BULK order for 10 million of these things shipped for about 2-3 million bucks.

Or better yet if you can get major backing a set of cost reduction efforts and retolling of a factory should net you 100 million of em for about 10 million bucks.

And f yo get bill gates in on it you can do a final set of cost reduction passes and a mega mass factory production run to make 1 billion of them for about 50 million bucks.

But then you have to ship em.

Posted by: wintermane on 6 May 06

"you SHOULD be able to get a BULK order for 10 million of these things shipped for about 2-3 million bucks."

My cost estimation is based on high-volume ("bulk") plastic parts just like this one, so I'm unsure how you arrive at this conclusion, wintermute. A cost breakdown would be appreciated.

Posted by: csven on 6 May 06

Sorry. That should be "wintermane".

Posted by: csven on 6 May 06

Oh I have seen the cost structure before for various levels of mass production and no matter what your making as long as it doesnt require manual labor steps and what not the costs for making alot of things are the same.

But then I dont know if the making of the product creates toxic wastes nor do I know if any testing needs to be done on each unit and so on.

Also packaging will change the cost alot. Are they to be packed in bulk in standard shipping boxes or in indevidual labeled boxes carefully packed into shipping boxes... or in shrink wrapped bundles.

Posted by: wintermane on 6 May 06

as long as it doesnt require manual labor steps

"production in China".

I've designed products for North American production (reduced labor) that have been re-designed by Chinese manufacturers to add labor. When asked, I've been told several reasons why they do this. I assume you know these reasons as well. Which is why I don't understand your comment. If it's being made in China, expect manual labor.

"But then I dont know..."

Plenty of caveats. I also don't know the details.

I'm not asking for a detailed analysis. Only how you arrive at the "10 million" units for "2-3 million bucks." You apparently have some rational. Please share.

Posted by: csven on 6 May 06

Not for long it seems china actauly is begining to have a labor shortage... didnt see that comming.

As for the numbers... I dont have inside info or better info and I might well be wrong. Still most of it was based on the cost of the mahcines needed and I dont think that has changed much at all.

Posted by: wintermane on 7 May 06

The problems in China, interestingly enough, were surfacing in the late 90's. Many people like myself traveling to China for product development were aware - or should have been. Chinese factory owners spoke openly of their labor issues.

Cost of the machines (I assume you mean molds) doesn't quite scale with volume. The tools may be steel, but they don't last forever at those machine pressures.

Does anyone have solid numbers and production specifics for those devices?

Posted by: csven on 7 May 06

The only way to get solid numbers is to have a professional look at the exact product and go ver it with a team who know how to cost reduce a prototype.

And your not likely to find such a team and professional working for free.

In fact most likely alot of that 3.50 pricetag is the chinese bussiness tacking on a fudge factor.

Posted by: wintermane on 7 May 06

Here's a marketing plan: The customer buys two, and donates one of them to a non-profit distributor set up by the manufacturer (or whoever.. partner with UNICEF or something). This way your average REI (retail sports outfitter in the US) customer is either getting a two-for-one deal, or they're buying one and sending one off. (Or maybe sending two off.) Package them in two-packs, with one pre-packaged for mailing.

And shoot... $3.50 retail is easy to get someone to donate, regardless of the marketing plan, and it's an easy sell. Assuming the cost of production doesn't come down that much, it's going to have to be a gift from the developed world.

Posted by: Paul Mitchum on 7 May 06

"And your not likely to find such a team and professional working for free."

In case you missed it, I am a professional designer with experience designing these kinds of products. And if I had one of these available, I could probably get an excellent analysis performed by other professionals with whom I work. For free.

Posted by: csven on 7 May 06

Wow thats handy! So what does it generaly cost to make stuff in china now all my info is rather moldy. I assumed unless the filter uses some expensive materials or something it should wind up rather cheap. After all all it is is a tube with stuff in it.

Posted by: wintermane on 7 May 06

Depends. I can make educated guesses based on photos and my own experience, but the big unknown is what they're doing inside that tube to filter the water. Even if someone told me, I'd not be able to translate that to cost - which is where some people I know could help me out.

Whatever is filtering the water might be pushing the cost way up and making my numbers worthless. But I'd like to know that and not assume it.

Posted by: csven on 7 May 06

btw, I found something that might be related to the "halogen-based resin" mentioned in the LifeStraw literature: Link to PDF file.

Posted by: csven on 7 May 06

Actauly that was what was worryin me too as frankly I had to wonder if whoever this is is getting a real honest bid or just a tell em what sounds ok and we will cut corners to make money anyway bid.

I have seen alot of real disaster stories about such things soecialy dealing with china and its massive fake product industry.

Posted by: wintermane on 7 May 06

Something occurs to me. This doesn't appear to be injection molded. The "tube" looks like an extrusion. While it sounds odd, at my former employer the use of extruded parts was discouraged due to cost. From what I recall, extruded parts start off cheap but begin to cost more than injection molded parts at a relatively low volume. It doesn't make obvious sense, but I suspect that may be true here.

Also, there are apparently more than one textile filtering screens inside (according to the official website) and iirc three internal chambers - which probably means spacers of some kind. Add the end pieces and the clear caps and the part count may also start to be significant.

Another thing. I'm guessing that the housing is made from a bacteria-killing polystyrene. Custom resin could jack up the price. Add to it whatever method they're using to "weld" the parts together and this could all get costly.

If anyone has a link to a patent or some solid information regarding its construction (other than the LifeStraw website), please post it.

Posted by: csven on 8 May 06

The LifeStraw is using a filter made from cloth type material (cheap)to remove dirt and parasites, iodinated resin for disinfection (expensive)of bacteria and viruses and activated carbon for the removal of residual iodine (quite cheap).
Iodinated resin (or: iodine resin) has been used for more than 20 year for water disinfection. Have a look at Google. The material is quite expensive and I guess the mayor costs for the purifier is into the iodinated resin. The new halopure resin (based on chlorine) is cheaper but has a much lower capacity. Positive point about the halopure resin s the fact that it can be recharged using a traditional low cost chlorine product. However, recharging is not practical and users friendly for a device as the LifeStraw.

Posted by: Klaas van der Ven on 14 May 06

Lifestraw cost is quite interesting. Calculating the cost of a clean ltr. of water using LifeStraw gives you some idea as to how inexpensive this tool is. @ 3 USD$ a unit, with 700 ltr purefying capacity, the cost of 1 clean safe ltr of water is under 0.006 USD$. THAT IS FREE WATER!!

Posted by: John on 14 May 06

A daily income of $1 per day, and the LifeStraw costing $3.50 per year. If I lived in a third world country under these conditions, I'd find a way to get one. Put aside 10 cents per day and you can have one in a month and a half. Even saving a penny a day for an entire year will make the next year that much better.

The biggest issue may be convincing a family that they need more than one. Based on the income levels, these devices will probably be shared among many people. Unfortunately, this will make it neigh impossible to properly determine when it needs replacement.

Don't get me wrong; I am extremely impressed with this device. It can have a dramatic effect on the quality of life for millions of people in virtually every developing country in the world.

For the record, the water that comes out of my tap every day doesn't help educate me, either. But I'm very glad it's there and that it doesn't make me sick.

Posted by: CleanWater on 22 May 06



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