CBE Product Design Class

CBE Product Design Class

Educating engineers for the future

When Cornell Orchards makes apple juice or cider, there is some leftover apple fiber. This pulpy residue is called pomace, and it can be a rich source of carbohydrates and minerals. For years, farmers have used dried pomace as a fertilizer for their fields and as a nutritional supplement for their animals. In 2014, some Cornell University Food Science students took pomace and turned it into a caramel-and-peanut-butter-coated popped snack food they named Popples. Their product won first prize at the Institute for Food Technologists product development competition in New Orleans last June. In effect, they turned waste into gold.

Professor Tobias Hanrath, of Cornell’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), heard about Popples and their first-place showing and he decided to use them as a “seed idea” for students in his Product Design Class (CHEME 4630). Hanrath told his students about the history of Popples and challenged them to create something similar.

“My aim with this class,” says Hanrath, “is to introduce students to the whole process of designing a product, from initial idea, to economic analysis of product development, to an ultimate recommendation as to the viability of the product.” While it may sound like this class would fit better in an undergraduate management degree program, it actually fits quite nicely into Cornell Engineering’s expansive, tradition-busting idea of what a well-educated engineer should study.

Ever since 1865 when Ezra Cornell founded Cornell University as an institution where “any person can find instruction in any study,” the University has been a leader in educational innovation. Many of the earliest students at Cornell found instruction in the field of “engineering and mechanical arts,” and by 1870 the College of Engineering was established. In the years since, Cornell Engineering has made sure that students do not simply find instruction, but rather find the most up-to-date instruction available.

Times change, and Cornell Engineering programs change to keep one step ahead of the times. Cornell was home to the first electrical engineering program in the country. Cornell awarded the world’s first Ph.D. in industrial engineering. The first woman in the United States to get an engineering degree was a civil engineer at Cornell. Cornell engineering students participated in one of the first distance learning classes ever taught back in 1966. And Cornell Engineering was one of the first colleges in the world to teach nanotechnology to undergraduates. 

One way this commitment to remaining at the vanguard of engineering education makes itself obvious these days is the increasing emphasis on product design across the many fields of engineering study at Cornell. It is no longer good enough to be just a well-trained engineer. Students these days enter a world where entrepreneurship, sustainable design, environmental footprint, and the voice of the customer have risen in importance. They have joined technical specs on the list of considerations an engineer must keep in mind when working on a new product.

Senior chemical engineering major Heather Barton signed-up for CHEME 4630 because she took the pre-requisite Concepts of Chemical Engineering Product Design class and enjoyed it very much. “I hope to ultimately work in research and development implementing the tools I have acquired in the product design classes,” says Barton. Chemical engineering M.Eng. student Asad Akhund says the class has made him think differently about the future. “The class has given me a lot of insight into the product development process. My previous work centered on basic research, and this experience has opened up a new potential career path in consumer goods.” Barton and Akhund are working together on a protein-enriched ice cream product.

Kevin Hung and Airic Suarez, chemical engineering seniors, are working on developing an avocado-based granola bar. The catch is, they are not using the pulpy green “meat” of the avocado. Instead, they are using the part we all throw away—the pit. “Our product is a granola bar mixed with honey, avocado pit puffs, and almonds,” say senior chemical engineering majors Kevin Hung and Airic Suarez. “The avocado pit itself contains 70% of the nutritional value of the avocado, but consumers typically just toss them away. If we can utilize the byproduct (waste) of the avocado and create a product, it would eliminate waste and bring benefits for the consumer.”

“Part of my job in teaching the class,” says Hanrath, “is to help students better understand the multitude of considerations that go into advancing an initial idea into a commercially viable product. It is very exciting to see how the student teams engage in the process and take ownership of their ideas.” Hanrath, who is going through his own product design challenge involving a nanomaterial start-up company, says that his experience informs his teaching of the class. “Going through the process myself makes teaching the Product Design Class richer, deeper, and more valuable,” says Hanrath.

Hanrath credits CBE Senior Lecturer Alan Feitelberg with initiating some of the department’s increased emphasis on the principles and foundational skills of product design. “Alan has been a key architect in the product design course and he actually started the “Principles of Product Design” course on which the project-based course is built,” says Hanrath “Alan has extensive experience with product design in industry and he brings this experience to the classroom here at Cornell. His perspective is very valuable.”

For his part, Feitelberg reports that he did not learn anything about modern methods of product design until he was out of school and in the work world. “My employers spent a considerable amount of time and money teaching me the techniques of product design, and I had the opportunity to work with, and to learn from, some of the best in the field.” When he joined Cornell Engineering in 2012 Feitelberg saw a chance to bring his experiences to bear on undergraduate education in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“I thought we could add great value to our educational program if our students had the opportunity to practice using the tools and techniques of product design developed in industry,” says Feitelberg. “This would better prepare our students to tackle product design problems and our students would require substantially less on-the-job training than students from other institutions.”

The students in the class, who are all senior chemical engineering majors or M.Eng. students, agree with Hanrath’s assessment. In addition to the stellar technical education they are receiving, they are also getting a taste of what it might be like to be responsible for some of the business considerations that go into creating a new product. Where will you get the raw materials? How much will they cost? What is the initial cost of equipment? Is your technology scalable? Who is your market? What are they willing to pay? And, after weighing all the factors, is producing your product the right decision?  “These are not things engineers traditionally think about,” says Hanrath. 

Through classes like CHEME 4630 and similar classes in other schools and departments of Cornell Engineering, Cornell students are once again on the leading edge of changes in what it means to educate an engineer. Senior Kevin Hung says, “This class is teaching me what it feels like to work in a start-up environment. I am gaining real experience on a product development team and working with real prototyping equipment. It is a real eye-opener. I consider myself an entrepreneur and plan to continue after my graduation.” So, if you are in the grocery store in the near future and you see an avocado-puff granola bar for sale you will know that Cornell’s Product Design Class has scored its first market success.