To help people eat all the fruits and vegetables they buy, we created a produce storage and preservation system to keep fruits and vegetables fresher, longer.
Many of the fruits and vegetables we buy goes bad before we can eat it, and unfortunately, has to be thrown away.
The average American ends up throwing out about 20% of the produce that they purchase. Fruits and vegetables account for 39% of all wasted food in the US, equalling an estimated $210 billion each year. What makes this worse is that currently, 90% of Americans are not eating enough fruits and vegetables according to USDA recommended guidelines.
Much of the produce we buy ends up going "down the drain"
Millennials, or those born between 1981 and 1996, eat the most produce out of any other demographic segment -- 86% consume fruits and vegetables once a week. They also devote the largest share grocery bill to fruits and vegetables compared to other generations.
According to a recent study, 83% of British Millennials surveyed claim they waste food at least once a month, which leads all age groups. Thus, if American Millennials are like their British peers, they are buying the most produce -- but also likely throwing the most produce away. With this problem in mind, our team asked ourselves: How might we help Millennials eat all the fruits and vegetables they purchase?
Avocados, a Millennial staple
A young person veggie browsing
I was a design researcher, writer, primary editor, and primary graphic designer for this project. As the only member of the team without an engineering background, I learned much about the engineering product development process from my colleagues, while also tapping into my social sciences training and experiences to help move our process forward.
My teammates (Lisa, Thomas, Vincent) and I (behind camera) on a research trip to Home Depot
The Design Process
Our design process included the following steps:
1. Understanding the user group
2. Defining product goals
3. Researching similar products
4. Selecting a design concept
5. Building the product
6. Writing a business plan
However, we also followed this general design process framework taught in all Design Science courses:
1. Understanding the User Group
Our first step was trying to understand what Millennials' perspectives and pains were, particularly around food waste. One of the ways we did this was through a survey we administered to mostly Millennial classmates, where we found that fruits and vegetables were the foods they most regretted throwing out (50% of write-in responses to an open ended question).
Through the survey and interviews we conducted with friends and colleagues, we found that many end up having to throw away food because they often a) forgot what they bought and/or b) cannot find what they bought.
To flesh out our understanding of the problem and the sequence of steps that led to it, we created a storyboard about Will, a fictional character who's unfortunately forced to throw away his salad ingredients:
We also crafted brief personas to further distill potential details that could complicate users' relationship with food and food waste.
2. Defining Product Goals
Based on our understanding of the user and factors that lead to food waste, we created attributes we wanted our product to have characteristics to measure those attributes by, as seen below:
The two attributes we thought were most important to consider when designing the product were:
The product should be able to stand out from a crowded fridge or counter space, so food in it won't be forgotten
The product should be effective at sustaining or adding to the "edible life"of produce
We then created requirements and objectives for the design, which acted as strict measures to judge our design by:
3. Researching Similar Products
To inspire ideas and understand where the gaps in the market might be, we deliberated the pros and cons of different food preservation products, like:
The Crisper Drawer:
This traditional produce storage device is accessible since it can be found in most fridges, but produce can be easily lost or unseen in it.
The Produce Saver:
Like some crisper drawers, this product lets one control airflow to the food inside for greater preservation. It can used outside the fridge, however, the product itself (and the food in it) can likely get lost when inside.
This product absorbs some of the gas that leads to food mold and is made to be placed in crisper drawers. However, it does not help make produce become more noticeable to the would-be eater.
This product eliminates air around sealed food, thus eliminating places for mold to grow. However, the product itself is loud, it has to be tended to manually, and sealed bags can easily be lost in the fridge.
The Vacuum Sealer:
Overall, we found that these products helped prolong freshness, but did not make produce more visible. We also found that our favorite option, the vacuum sealer, could be inconvenient because of its loud noise and time it took to use the product.
4. Selecting a Design Concept
To choose our product concept, we "diverged" and "converged several times, proposing different concepts and scoring them in accordance to our product attributes. We ultimately decided on creating a product that would be a "smart container" in some form since it had the highest weighted score, as seen below:
We then decided to combine the "smart container"concept with the "vacuum sealer" concept to create some form of "vacuum-sealed container." Next, we had to determine how to embody that concept and created a functional decomposition chart to help brainstorm the product's functions, placement, and needs.
After brainstorming and deliberating possibilities, we concluded that our product would be a container-based vacuum sealer in the refrigerator that is turned on and off automatically.
5. Building the Product
To embody our design, we first created two-dimensional models of how our product would look and theoretically function. From there, we were able to construct our working prototype.
A rendering of the product
A rendering of the container going into the tray
A rendering of the product's possible location in the fridge
To use the product, you:
Place a variety of produce into one of the containers
Open the fridge and extend the tray
Place the container into a free tray slot
Retract the tray and close the fridge
Closing the fridge triggers the vacuum seal to be turned on, automatically turning off when the container is completely sealed. When the user wants to eat their stored item, they simply extend the tray and detach the container to retrieve their food. To see how the product is used, please see the video below.
A demonstration of the product being used
A breakdown of the product's functions
We also broke the product into five sub-assemblies for engineering design:
Tray: An extendable, sliding, easy to grip, and divided platform for the containers that ensures the containers (and food within them) can be seen.
Base: A low-profile, plastic box with attached "tongue" for the tray that connects to a fridge shelf.
Containers: Small, clear plastic boxes with handle lock lids that easily connect to the airflow system and be used in and outside the fridge.
Vacuum Seal System: A compact and quiet (60-65 dB) vacuum pump and filter housed in the base and its attached tubing that allow consistent removal of gases produced during the produce ripening process
Electronics: A 12-volt adapter and microcontroller also housed in the base.
For detailed description of the components and principles that went into the product's engineering, please see pages 17-21 in the VeggieFresh Final Technical Report here.
The product displayed at University of Michigan's Design Expo
The product in a fridge
6. Writing a Business Plan
After refining our prototype, our next task was to think about how our product could be differentiated in the market and how to scale up it up to a viable business.
Here, we created the name "VeggieFresh," its logo, and related colors (a bright green and orange), all intended to suggest "freshness of fruits and vegetables."
Our product's name and logo
When reviewing our prototype and market research from earlier, we found that VeggieFresh was unique in its ability to both prolong freshness and make produce more visible. It's also a less time consuming and quieter option than a traditional vacuum sealer since it's already in the fridge, is triggered automatically after the fridge closes, and has its vacuum pump noise level dampened due to being in the fridge, as seen below:
While in the fridge, the VeggieFresh vacuum emits 50 dB, versus 60-65 dB if outside the fridge.
We found that our estimated market was 3.15M young professionals, or the 12.9% of American Millennials earning above $60,000. Through a conjoint analysis, we estimated the product demand to be 65,000 units.
Our target market was 3.15 Million American Millennials
We estimated the material and production cost of making one unit at $49.27, including the price of the injection molding processes and determined our fix costs to be $336,380 per year, as seen below:
We conducted a break even analysis, taking into account the income, expenses, and quantity expected to be sold over time. The analysis assumes that we would need a $300,00 business loan obtained at an 8.5% interest rate paid over 5 years, that the break even point would occur the first year, and that our production goals are met every year.
If we were continue the project, we would continue to test and refine the product, add better sensors for detecting the refrigerator close, and create a cleaner injection molded plastic housing. Also, we would find a way a more elegant way to power device as the last prototype required external power from the wall -- which required a wire running out of the fridge door.
Currently, 90% of Americans are not eating the USDA recommended servings of fruits and vegetables. As foods high in fiber, naturally low in fat and calories, and validated to reduce health conditions like heart disease and strokes, fruits and vegetables should be make an appearance at every meal -- making produce more visible and last longer can potentially help make that a reality.
The team believes that a product like VeggieFresh can help busy consumers enjoy all the produce they buy in a way not seen before -- reducing waste, eating healthier, and saving money in the process.
Team VeggieFresh at University of Michigan's Design Expo
Thomas Barlow, MS & BS Mechanical Engineering
Contributor, Primary Prototype Builder, and Videographer
Lisa Lavergne, MS Design Science, BS Economics (formerly engineering)
Contributor, Primary Business Analyst
Chris Lezama, MS Design Science and MPA, BA Sociology and Literature
Contributor, Primary Graphic Designer and Editor
Vincent Qiu, MS Design Science and MS Information, BS Mechanical Engineering
Contributor, Prototype Builder, and Primary 2D Model Builder