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Professor Alison Olechowski (MIE, ISTEP); front row, far right) leads the Ready Lab, which aims to improve engineering design with a focus on leading-edge tools, such as computer-aided design. (Photo: Alison Olechowski)

Computer-aided design (CAD) software has been a tool used by engineers and designers for decades, but according to Professor Alison Olechowski (MIE, ISTEP) a better understanding of how it’s used could help these workers level-up their skills — with knock-on effects across a range of industries.  

“CAD is now used to design every manufactured object in our lives — from medical devices to cars to toys to furniture,” says Olechowski. “Mastery of CAD unlocks the potential for faster and higher quality design. But believe it or not, we don’t yet fully understand what an expert user does differently than a novice.”  

Olechowski’s Ready Lab aims to enhance engineering design and education with a focus on how people learn to use leading-edge tools such as CAD and leverage them to collaborate with each other on projects. They use cloud CAD platforms as an experimental laboratory to study these processes.  

By collecting and analyzing data from industrial CAD users, student teams and competitions, they are able to understand users’ behaviours in a way that has been previously unexplored.  

The team defines an expert CAD user as someone with extensive experience using CAD software in a professional setting, while a novice user has skills equivalent to having completed one CAD course.  

“One of my former students, James Chen (MechE 1T7 + PEY, MASc 2T1), who now works at Apple as a product design engineer, kickstarted this project through an experiment with expert CAD participants,” says Olechowski. “We found some interesting trends there that deserved a deeper dive.”  

One trend the team observed was that expert CAD users set themselves up for success from the start of a project by anticipating the end model better and strategically planning early features. This results in them having to do fewer revisions later in the design process.    

Funding for this project comes from the Connaught New Researcher Awards, which helps early-career faculty members establish their research program. Olechowski is one of more than 50 researchers from across U of T supported in the latest round.  

“The award is a great boost as I seek out other sources of research funding. The discoveries we make with this project will lay the foundation for our next series of studies, which we are expanding to consider collaboration,” says Olechowski, who recently won a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to study tools for distributed, collaborative engineering design work.   

The other two projects from U of T Engineering supported by the Connaught New Researchers Awards are: 

  • Fae Azhari (MIE, CivMin) — Smart bridge decks 
  • Kevin Golovin (MIE) — A novel synthetic textile finish to mitigate the formation of the microplastics fibres 

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