Sparking novel projects to help improve lives through better design

Case study

Connections made through the University’s Crucible programme have led Dr Lisa-Dionne Morris to work on new projects as varied as watering can design and virus detection in toilets. 

Associate Professor of Human Activity and Product Design Development in the School of Mechanical Engineering, Dr Morris evaluates product systems and services to improve the experiences of different people and communities. She originally came from an industry background, designing components for Aston Martin and Bentley and working for IBM before moving into academic life.

She says: “I thrive on solving real-life problems from a technical and creative perspective, and since joining the University I’ve taken every opportunity to find other people looking to explore research briefs and work collaboratively.” 

One of the University’s Crucible events, which bring participants together to exchange ideas and create connections, provided such an opportunity.

Assessing the usefulness of products

At the event – which took place virtually due to the COVID-19 lockdown – Dr Morris made a presentation on a systems evaluation process she had used at IBM, which assesses the suitability and usefulness of products and components. Professor David Hogg, whose work includes the application of artificial intelligence in engineering design, had been looking for a way to address the functionality of components within a large product database for a project involving Rolls-Royce. He thought the process could be programmed into artificial intelligence to make decisions on components, with no need for human intervention. 

The two are now cooperating on a project to design an apparently simple object; a watering can. 

Dr Morris explains: “There are thousands of watering cans out there that aren’t fit for purpose. When we consider different end users, such as someone elderly with dexterity issues, we can see that many of those won’t meet their function. Correctly defining that function in the computer-aided design process will help product designers and speed up the production process.” 

The researchers hope products could ultimately be manufactured using 3D Rapid prototyping or printing technology. 

Developing a way to diagnose shingles

Dr Morris is also working on a project that arose from a different Crucible workshop. In a breakout session, she was discussing the medical misdiagnosis of shingles with fellow academics from different disciplines, including Dr Victor Doychinov from the School of Electric and Electronic Engineering.

Shingles is a virus, rather than a bacterium, and Dr Doychinov revealed that he was trialling an amino sensor which can distinguish viruses from bacteria using electrical resistance. The two are now working together on a project that might help care homes to definitively identify their residents’ illnesses with the use of embedded amino sensors in incontinence pads or toilets.

Dr Morris explains: “Integrating different perspectives and approaches can kindle an idea, or even keep a project alive. Even more importantly these groups are a ‘safe space’ for early career researchers to be able to approach someone who’s busy: if they’re in the group, you know they are willing and open to hearing about new projects and ideas.”