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NSF-funded project could transform the way products are designed, tested and manufactured

By Matthew Biddle

Release Date: August 22, 2014

“Cyber-empathic design will allow products to ‘observe themselves’ and will transform product engineering.”
Andrew Olewnik, adjunct assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Three University at Buffalo professors have received a $368,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to research technology that could revolutionize product engineering by allowing designers to better measure consumer perceptions and customize products accordingly.

The investigators for this research are Andrew Olewnik, adjunct assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Kemper Lewis, professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, both in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and Arun Lakshmanan, assistant professor of marketing in the UB School of Management.

The award, given by the NSF’s Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation, will fund a two-year study of cyber-empathic design — the use of embedded sensors in products to provide a quantitative and efficient measure of consumer perceptions and how those opinions correspond to product features.

For example, an office chair with this technology would have sensors to monitor seating position, posture and other biometric data, and automatically adjust pressure mechanisms to provide optimal comfort and support for each individual user.

According to Lewis, the science and technologies developed in this research could transform the way consumer products are designed, tested, manufactured and deployed.

“This project will yield scientific advancements that, together with advances in digital manufacturing and material technologies, could create a world where every product is customizable to every individual,” Lewis says. “Two people could purchase the same product, but instantly upon use, the product could start to learn our differences and adjust automatically to meet our needs.”

During the two-year project, the team plans to test and verify a generalized cyber-empathic framework that can incorporate multiple sources of data, including traditional customer surveys and focus groups, and information from cyber-empathic sources like sensors.

From there, the team’s goal will be to quantitatively measure the relationship between consumer perceptions and specific product attributes and features, which could ultimately speed up development cycles and generate more effective products.

“Cyber-empathic design will allow products to ‘observe themselves’ and will transform product engineering by improving our ability to identify opportunities for innovation and create products and systems that better meet consumers’ needs,” says Olewnik, the principal investigator for the study.

“Typically, focus groups and other current measurements are subjective and conducted when the customer is far removed from actual product usage, offering limited relevance on their own,” Lakshmanan adds. “The cyber-empathic framework will provide designers a novel and more efficient way to learn about products and systems after they are put in the hands of end-users.”

Previously, the project received funding from the UB Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities to support the development of a prototype with the help of two undergraduate research assistants.  

The National Science Foundation funds research and education in science and engineering through grants and cooperative agreements at universities, K-12 school systems, businesses and other organizations across the country. Every year, the foundation receives about 40,000 proposals for research, of which about 25 percent receive funding.

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Media Contact Information

Matthew Biddle
Assistant Director of Communications
School of Management
Tel: 716-645-5455
mrbiddle@buffalo.edu