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Washing machine proves useful for award-winning engineering research

Hoda ElMaraghy and Tarek AlGeddawy figured they needn’t look any further than an ordinary household appliance like a washing machine to demonstrate how manufacturers can respond to growing consumer demand for increased product variety but still remain profitable.

“It made sense to use a washing machine as a model because it’s realistic, it’s a good size, and it’s typical of many consumer products” said Dr. AlGeddawy, a post-doctoral research fellow in the lab of Dr. ElMaraghy, an engineering professor, Canada Research Chair and director of the University’s Intelligent Manufacturing Systems Centre.

The pair recently developed a model that uses a cladogram – a diagram normally used by biologists to illustrate relationships between species – to demonstrate how a manufacturer can identify the best product component architecture, satisfy different market requirements, and minimize the costs associated with the proliferation of product variety, by promoting modular product family and platform design.

Their model is described in a paper that was published last November in the academic Journal of Engineering Design, and the publication’s editors selected it as the Best Paper for 2012, based on the “scientific and professional value of the ideas presented, the comprehensiveness of investigations, significance and societal impacts of the findings, and the quality of conclusions.”

ElMaraghy said the paper is significant because it provides a generic model manufacturers can use to group the components of their own products and map out ways they can produce them efficiently and inexpensively, while still offering the consumer product choice and value in an economy of mass production.

“Product variety is a burden for manufacturers, but it also presents an opportunity to increase market share by offering a wide scope of products,” she said. “Just look at the variety of options in an automobile. Managing that variety is a must in order to be successful.”

AlGeddawy, who based his PhD on the co-evolution of design of various products and the systems used to manufacture them, said the model builds on the concept of commonality of components that can perform the same function in many product variants.

“It defines product structure, but still offers variety, by grouping various components,” he explained. “The steps for applying the model are very clear, and it’s generic enough to apply if you’re making washing machines, auto parts or airplanes.”

ElMaraghy and AlGeddawy were both thrilled with the best paper award.

“It’s a top tier journal,” said ElMaraghy, who noted she has received lots of positive feedback on it at conferences she’s recently attended. “It’s very difficult to get published in.”