Rock Crusher Eases Hardships in Uganda

Issue Date: 
September 15, 2008

The simple, hand-powered rock crusher that Pitt civil engineering graduate student Dave Torick built marked an evolution in his perception of how to help others. No multibillion dollar grants or sweeping economic reforms were needed. All it took was a 400-pound, steel-frame contraption perched atop four wheelbarrow tires and forged in the Swanson School of Engineering machine shop. That alone was enough to help villagers half-a-world away make some extra money in less time.

For the past year, Torick has collaborated with chemical engineering alumnus Keith Task (’05), now a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda, on a simple mission—invent a faster way to break rocks. Task works with villagers with HIV/AIDS who earn extra money by making gravel from boulders, a laborious venture undertaken with only basic tools. Now the fruit of that pursuit, the rock crusher, is bound for Uganda and scheduled to arrive by the end of this month.

“This machine’s not going to save the world, but I hope it makes some people’s lives a little easier,” Torick said. “I’d love to hear that people could afford medicine that they couldn’t before or even got to take a day off instead of working every day of their lives. That’s been my driving force.”

Task sent the idea for the crusher to one of his former professors in the Swanson School soon after he began his two-year Peace Corps stint in Uganda’s Kabale District in 2006. Task thought the idea would benefit Swanson School engineering students looking for practical experience.

The message was passed on to Torick, who incorporated it into the Swanson School’s Product Realization class, where students develop working products that address a real need. He and three other Pitt students —industrial engineering undergraduate Les Gies, graduate student Jason Kelly, and mechanical engineering undergrad Cliff Sanders—spent most of the summer 2007 semester conceptualizing the crusher; Torick built the machine this past spring term with help from Sanders.

Kabale straddles the Rwandan border in the highlands of southwestern Uganda. Most people work small farms and sell what they don’t eat, but there also is a cottage industry of making gravel from Kabale’s abundant boulders for construction and road building, Task explained via e-mail from Uganda. The group he works with in particular has a perpetual need to earn extra money for medicine and doctor visits that often takes them into the steep hills to quarry stone.

Working with hammers and other hand tools, small groups extract boulders from the hillsides and break them into soccer ball-size chunks. These are carried to the roadside, where others break them into smaller pieces, ideally the size of ping-pong balls. Contractors patrol the roadside buying the gravel by the truckload. The smaller the pieces, the more money paid. Ten people can churn out a truckload of gravel in a week, earning $60 for the prized smaller pieces.

“People are always constructing, so a need for aggregate and gravel always exists,” Task wrote. Yet “selling gravel is not a major source of income. That’s not because the materials are unavailable or because the demand is not present, but because the current method is very time-consuming and tiresome.”

Task’s photos lay out the process: Two men work boulders out of a towering cliff with a shovel and a hand ax. A teenager treads the roadside with cantaloupe-size rocks stacked atop his head. A man peppered in white dust straddles a pile of gravel, a stack of boulders next to him as the fierce sun shimmers on his skin. He pinches each fragment between his fingers as he smashes it with a mallet.

Torick plans for his rock crusher to benefit people with the job of pounding rocks into gravel. The crusher would be rolled along the roadside, crunching the larger stones carried in from the hills.

And the crusher can do it. One afternoon in June, Torick and some student assistants cribbed chunks of concrete from the construction site around Pitt’s Benedum Hall. One person stood on each side of the machine, cranking handles of PVC pipe that turn the 100-pound weights, which serve as flywheels. These, in turn, set the crushing gears in motion.

Torick loaded cantaloupe-size concrete chunks into the top of the machine, pushing them into the undulating iron jaws that he—unfamiliar with the geology of Uganda—designed to break granite. Plum-size pieces slid from the machine’s chute into a pile on the loading dock as a chalky dust puffed from the machine’s innards. Torick narrowed the gap between the adjustable crush plates and did it again.

Within 30 minutes, he had 250 pounds of what he calls “$60 gravel.”
Torick was attracted by the project’s simplicity and its potential benefit, even if for only a small group of people.

At 35, Torick has gone from school to work and back to school in search of a way to put his engineering education and experience to good use. In 1996, he left a well-paying job as an automobile engineer only a few years after earning his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Kettering University in Flint, Mich., because he felt he wasn’t helping anyone.

“I realized that I was too young to be waking up for a paycheck,” he said. “All I was doing was making cars turn better in a parking lot and coming up with ways to make the ride smoother. I wasn’t happy.”

He decided to teach, earning his master’s degree in education at Ohio State University in 2000. He joined the U.S. Department of Defense’s nationwide STARBASE program, which encourages elementary school students to pursue a career in science and use their knowledge to benefit society … then, realized he wanted to do that himself.

“I loved teaching, but I wasn’t using my technical knowledge to benefit anyone,” said Torick, who came to Pitt in 2006.

As his rock crusher makes its way into the heart of Africa, Torick is focusing his graduate work on product development for villages. He hopes to identify the specific needs of a village and invent a device to simply and effectively meet them.

“It blows my mind that people in the world still make a living through jobs like breaking rocks by hand,” Torick said, readying his crusher for one more test run. “This isn’t much, but it’s how I can help make the world