Giving Companies Marketplace Edge

Research consortium provides IT and systems engineering expertise.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

In today’s highly competitive global economy, companies always are looking for new ways to design, produce and deliver products that are innovative, high quality, cost-efficient to make, and affordable for consumers. Sometimes they need a little help.

“We come up with new methods that will enable them to design products in less time, at lower cost and with greater value to the consumer,” says Janis Terpenny, a professor of mechanical engineering and engineering education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. “They are looking for better processes. We help identify and develop these.”

By “we,” she means the Center for E-Design, a growing research consortium of academia, industry and government whose goal is to use information technology and systems engineering approaches to give companies an edge in the marketplace. It was created in 2003 with funding from the National Science Foundation.

“Designing products is a very complex process that can be slow and burdensome, and not always informed,” says Terpenny, a founding director of the center, currently on leave to work as a program officer in NSF’s division of undergraduate education.  ‘You don’t want to make a product that’s dead in the water when it comes to market.”

The center advises companies, and develops solutions for new design methods and technology, ways to save money while preserving quality, and helps them identify opportunities that can spawn the invention of new products. 

“Nobody said we needed the iPod,” Terpenny says. “But technology was changing, components were becoming smaller and smaller, and people wanted connectivity and entertainment. So there is an example of an opportunity—new technology—that ultimately satisfied a niche.

“Design is a process that responds to ideas and needs,” she adds. “It might well be driven by an opportunity that the market doesn’t yet know about. We’re trying to recognize those kinds of opportunities.”   

The work of the center could have broad applications in a number of major industries, including automotive, nautical and aerospace, as well as in the field of medical devices and other popular consumer products.

The center, which serves as a resource for research, technology, engineering education, and information and ideas, relies on the expertise of engineers with careers in intelligent product and system design and development. Virginia Tech serves as the lead institution. Its academic partners include the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Central Florida. Several additional universities are expected to join them.

A number of companies also have signed on, including Raytheon, which develops defense and global security systems; Respironics, which manufactures sleep apnea equipment; Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, which makes tires for cars, trucks, farm and racing vehicles, ATVs, and aviation; Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC), which develops, markets and supports software for product development; and Virtual e3D, which converts two-dimensional products into three-dimensional ones. 

The companies affiliated with the center pay annual membership fees of $30,000 to work with university professors who are experts in design process and information technologies (IT), and make use of some of the world’s most sophisticated tools, computers and talented students.

“Many companies have had products around for a long time, and want to re-engineer them,” Terpenny says. “We are helping them come up with better processes so the products have a longer life, are more durable, less expensive to manufacture and easier to service and recycle.”

One way is through encouraging a “product families” approach, that is, creating product lines—for example, coffee makers—that use one or more of the same components in all of the devices, while, at the same time, allowing add-ons that make some of the machines more sophisticated.  

“Coffee makers can be inexpensive to very expensive, depending on the bells and whistles,” she says. “Some of the things you put in coffee makers will not be the same in all of them but maybe the warming plate is the same in all of them. This way, the company doesn’t have a complicated inventory. If I can keep the same warming plate in all of them, I can keep the price lower and my own price lower.  This saves me money as the company, but also provides the consumer with choices.”