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Research Area: Design

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Design is pervasive in Mechanical Engineering

Virtually all faculty members in Stanford's Mechanical Engineering Department are involved in some form of design activity.

Some actively design and manufacture devices or products; others study the design process including team design and team learning, a traditional strength in our design curriculum. In addition, we develop tools to facilitate the creation of engineering products at a variety of scales and complexity. We interpret the word “design” widely, reflecting the broad value systems we cultivate in the Department. We also believe that a better understanding of societal needs, aided by association with social sciences, will further assure the relevance of the fields we choose to work in.

Where can you work on design?

The department’s Design Group, which contributes many faculty to the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, provides the nexus for the creation and understanding of successful design processes. Numerous faculty in the Mechanics and Computation Group and the Flow Physics and Computation Group are developing the next generation of simulation capabilities for mechanical, fluidic and biological systems. In the Thermofluids, Energy, and Propulsion Systems Group, there is much research on the design of thermal and energy conversion systems ranging from thermoelectric and solar energy converters to clean coal. Finally, there is a long tradition of the simulation, characterization and design of biomedical structures in the Biomechanical Engineering Program.

Broadening the requirements envelope

In the past, Design Engineering’s primary concern has been with “feasibility” — our traditional and technically oriented approach to problem-solving. As we are asked to be more innovative in today’s commercial/industrial environment, it becomes critical that we weigh in on “usability,” “viability” and “desirability” as well. The usability of products is obviously becoming more valued and requires us to focus much more strongly on human values in addition to technical requirements. Understanding the viability of the products and services we are responsible for creating requires better understanding of business principles in order to focus on appropriate solutions that will ensure that our designs will make it out into the world. Desirability requires an empathy for the social context and meaning of products.

Human-centered design

The human-centered design approach requires us to collaborate with and understand more fully the approach of social scientists in the cognitive psychology, sociology and cultural anthropology fields. Our challenge and opportunity after developing expertise in the social sciences is to understand human values and needs to nearly the same extent that we understand technical and analytical issues. This allows us to design products, services and experiences that people truly value as individuals and as a culture. The change to a human-centered design methodology is quite profound; instead of inspiration coming primarily from new technical advancements that we are trying to exploit, we take the approach of studying and observing humans to understand their wants and latent needs. We are therefore able to design a more appropriately satisfying solution that makes a difference.

Design Research Highlights

Touch is one of the most important human senses. It lets us connect with the world – and each other. Roboticists like Allison Okamura – think we should be building technology that helps us reconnect through the power of touch.

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A black and white image of a tiny Stanford logo made using nanoscale 3D printing.

New nanoscale 3D printing material

Able to absorb twice as much energy as other similarly dense materials, this new material designed by Stanford engineers could offer better structural protection for satellites, drones, and microelectronics.

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Tom Kenny

Four Stanford faculty elected to the National Academy of Engineering

Thomas Kenny, who serves as senior associate dean for student affairs and the Richard W. Weiland Professor in the School of Engineering, has been elected to the 2022 class of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

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Researchers create a device that imitates social touch, but from afar

The technology, still in its very early stages, doesn’t mimic social touch precisely, but creates instead “a haptic illusion.”

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