Northwestern receives NSF funding for information technology research

September 21, 2000

EVANSTON, Ill. - Recent grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will aid two Northwestern University research teams, one that is designing special robots to assist humans in heavy materials handling to prevent injury and another that is developing technology to distribute, via the Internet, the use of computer software for large-scale optimization problems.

Northwestern has received nearly $1 million from NSF under its new $90 million Information Technology Research (ITR) initiative to promote innovative IT-driven science and engineering. The Northwestern projects were selected from more than 1,400 proposals submitted to NSF.

Workplace injuries due to manual materials handling cost U.S. industry billions of dollars every year. To assist in handling heavy loads, researchers at Northwestern have developed a new type of robot called a cobot, which works together with a human as a team. Rather than supplying additional power, a cobot's primary function is to guide motion, relieving stress on human muscles and joints. But for cobots to most effectively assist workers, researchers need to have a better understanding of human ergonomics and human motor control.

A three-year, $450,000 NSF/ITR grant will enable a team of mechanical and biomedical engineers to study how people naturally direct force to move a load, how they interact with motion guides and how motion guides can help people accomplish a task with minimal effort.

"The bottom line is that we want to reduce workplace injuries," said Kevin Lynch, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who is the project's principal investigator. "We are studying the use of programmable motion guides that allow people to use the big muscles of the body and avoid awkward motions and forces, like twisting of the lower back."

In developing robots that make the task of moving heavy materials as easy and comfortable as possible, the researchers first need to define what "less effort" means in this context. Is it the amount of calories burned? Does it involve stress on the joints? Psychological comfort? Basically, what does it mean for a task to be easy or difficult for humans? These questions are at the core of the research.

"Cobots are an existing technology that need to be optimized for materials handling tasks," said Lynch. "Properly designed guides will increase productivity and provide an intuitive and safe interface between humans and robots."

A variety of organizations and companies, from large airlines to small factories, frequently deal with complex optimization problems, such as scheduling airplanes for flights and maintenance or effectively scheduling jobs on different factory machines. Optimization software exists, but it's not easy to access and can require more technical savvy than available personnel have.

With a three-year, $468,359 NSF/ITR grant, Robert Fourer, professor of industrial engineering and management sciences, and Jorge Moré, senior computer scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, are leading a team that will address these problems. The researchers plan to apply the concept of application service providers (ASPs) - a means of distributing the use of software, rather than the software itself, over the Internet - to large-scale optimization problems. Existing ASPs for optimization software are highly experimental and limited in scale.

The new technology will build on previous work done by researchers at the Northwestern-Argonne Optimization Technology Center in which they developed a Web interface and server that deliver appropriate software for small optimization problems.

"Developing mathematical models for executing complex optimization problems requires a lot of trial and error," said Fourer. "We want to provide a useful experimental test bed where users can tap into all different kinds of software to see what combination works best for their problem."

The project brings together methods, software and systems with the goal of connecting users and software in a smart way. If successful, the technology will have a broad impact on business, science and education.
For a complete list of ITR awards and project abstracts, see:


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