Last month, GE teamed up with the invention lab Quirky and “crowdsourced” ideas for a basic appliance that can be made smarter with software. “We’ve embraced the digital side of things and it’s highly stimulating, but not tactile,” said GE Executive Director Linda Boff. “At a very simple level, there is a desire to make things, to hold things in your hand, and [this partnership] is a come-one-come-all invitation to invention.”
The winner was the modest milk jug. The team spent the month of May in the lab, designing, shaping and molding the vessel. Today they unveiled what may be the world’s first “intelligent” milk container, the MilkMaid. It measures milk’s pH, or how acidic or alkaline it is. The optimum pH level for milk is slightly acidic, or pH 6.7. When milk begins to spoil, it starts turning into acid and its pH drops. You can smell spoiled milk or, worse, taste it. MilkMaid, on the other hand, will turn on a red LED light and send you a milk “status” text message. An iPhone app delivers instantaneous milk updates wherever you are on how many cups of milk you have left, expiration date, and temperature (has anyone left the refrigerator door open again?). If the unthinkable happens and your milk goes bad, the app will send you a sour milk recipe to save the day. Irish soda bread, anyone?
“The base of the jug contains a GSM radio module, antenna, battery, and SIM card, basically all the important parts of a cell phone,” Quirky’s head of marketing Brett Kovacs says. “When a microcontroller monitoring the milk detects changes, it turns on the radio and sends a SMS or text message to the user’s cell phone. It also indicates the condition using the LEDs and a buzzer in the base. Optionally, the user could request the status of the milk by sending a SMS to the jug, which would be answered with temperature, milk remaining, and estimated drink-by date,” Kovacs says.
The partnership between GE and Quirky goes back to GE Garages, a high-concept, hands-on manufacturing lab loaded with 3D printers like the MakerBot, laser cutters, injection molders, computer numeric control mills and other high-tech tools. The Garages let kids and adults learn how modern prototyping and manufacturing works, and participate in a medley of hands-on workshops, specialized training and education.