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
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
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
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
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.
The UB School of Management is recognized for its emphasis on
real-world learning, community and economic impact, and the global
perspective of its faculty, students and alumni. The school also
has been ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek, the Financial Times,
Forbes and U.S. News & World Report for the quality of its
programs and the return on investment it provides its graduates.
For more information about the UB
School of Management.