Integrating Modularity for Mass Customization of IoT Wireless Sensor Systems; The Impact of Specialty Coffee of Colombia's Coffee Industry

Gunderson, William, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Bailey, Reid, University of Virginia
Baritaud, Catherine, University of Virginia

The coffee industry is worth over $170 billion dollars and is a key factor in the economies of major coffee growing countries across the world. One such country is Colombia, where declining coffee exports and prices have decimated local economies. While the technical topic focuses on the development of a hub to allow data collection in remote, coffee growing areas, the problems plaguing the Colombian coffee industry are better assessed through a sociotechnical lens. This Science, Technology, and Society (STS) thesis explores the current state of the Colombian coffee industry and the impact of the growing specialty coffee market using the Actor-Network Theory.
The technical aspect of the thesis describes the development of a modular Low Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN) sensory hub that allows users to use up to three interchangeable wireless communication protocols to collect data that is then communicated back the Internet of Things(IoT). The device was developed by an interdisciplinary team of engineering students, with a group of electrical students designing a circuit model and simulating the connection of each radio while systems engineering students created an external housing and the necessary documentation to present to the client. The final housing was created using traditional 3D printing methods while the final electrical schematics were created in circuit modeling software, primarily Ultiboard.
A housing prototype was successfully printed and assembled using custom snapfits and a handmade rubber gusset. The initial electronics model was fully designed but the simulation exposed several flaws in the communication ports that prevented the design from reaching full functionality. Time constraints prevented the team from creating a physical prototype of the electronics model or testing the housing prototype using manufacturing methods the client would consider for industry. A fully functional prototype integrating the electronics into the housing was never completed.
The Colombian coffee industry was selected as the topic for the sociotechnical thesis due to its potential as a use case for the modular LPWAN hub and due to passion for the role specialty coffee plays in sustainability. After an initial literature review it became apparent the decline in coffee prices and exports had decimated small local economies throughout Colombia’s coffee growing region. Applying Actor-Network Theory revealed several important actors, including the farmers themselves, the National Federation of Coffee Growers (NFCG), the International Coffee Organization, and international consumers. Identifying the root causes of the decline of the coffee industry did not make any single solution apparent but did indicate that several systematic changes to the current supply chain could greatly improve local economies.
First, reintroducing the coffee tax to assist in the development of public works will make remote coffee growing areas more accessible and bring the revenue coffee generates back to local communities. Second, allowing farmers and co-ops more freedom to seek out their green coffee buyers in major coffee consuming regions like North America and Europe will allow farmers to achieve a better price on their exports. Finally, encouraging consumers to seek out coffee that is responsibly sourced forces buyers in specialty coffee to pay fairer prices to farmers and seek out high quality beans.
The decline in the Colombian coffee industry is clear, but method to repair the industry is neither clear nor simple. Actor-Network Theory allows researchers to identify all the factors that have brought Colombian coffee to its current state and in turn see the influence each actor has on the rest. When the industry is considered a sociotechnical system rather than purely an economic or agricultural phenomenon change can begin that can benefit local communities across Colombia’s coffee growing region.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Coffee, Internet of Things, Modularity, Colombian Coffee Industry, Actor-Network Theory

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering
Technical Advisor: Reid Bailey
STS Advisor: Catherine Baritaud
Technical Team Members:Derek D'alessandro, Yann Kelsen Donastein, Pedro Rodriguez, Ethan Staten

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