A Stitch in Time

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Iowa Engineer magazine, 2007 Number 1

Nagi Gebraeel has a healthy interest in long life. Although one would expect that from a young scholar just starting his career in a world-renowned research center, Gebraeel’s interest in long life is his career. The assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering develops sensory-based technology that monitors—and thereby prolongs—the health of newly designed equipment and helps industrial partners determine the optimal time to inspect, order, and replace machine parts. As interim director of CCAD’s Reliability and Sensory Prognostic Systems (RSPS) division, Gebraeel oversees a team of six faculty members and their students who grapple with designs and manufacturing in which extremely small tolerances can mean the difference between reliability/longevity and catastrophic failure.

The technology for interpreting sensory data streams that Gebraeel and his students are developing helps users determine when to inspect equipment, what components need to be replaced, and what spare parts to order before they are needed. Deere & Co. is currently working with Gebraeel and co-investigators Associate Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Geb Thomas and Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Yong Chen to develop and test fail-safe systems for on-board sensors in its autonomous field harvester prototypes. Currently in the design and development stage, these machines will work without the benefit of a human in the driver’s seat; they will be, in fact, robots.

“You can see,” Gebraeel says, “why it would be important that the sensors on board—the radar, sonar, and laser systems—work consistently and reliably to guide the machine across the field and not into the neighbor’s field or across the road.”

RSPS researchers investigate and develop new reliability-based design optimization that can be incorporated into manufacturing processes. In an increasingly competitive global economy, research that can improve not only the performance but also the reliability of equipment or product components can provide the critical margin of difference for a safer, longer-lived, and more economically viable product. For manufacturers and users of military and industrial equipment and consumer products, the economic and human implications of this margin can be substantial.

In a project with the Naval Air Systems Command, for example, Gebraeel is attempting to predict the time of failure of electrical power systems on Prop-3 aircraft, with an eye toward examining the systems on other aircraft in the future. Data gathered by vibration sensors indicate wear and tear on power generator units and eventually will help manufacturers and users anticipate optimal replacement time.

Gebraeel joined the CCAD team in 2004 after earning a PhD from Purdue University. He chose Iowa for good reason. “CCAD is renowned for its research and facilities,” he says. “It provides great lab space and startup funding. Those things alone make it a fantastic place to work. But for me, what really makes it unique is the feeling of collegiality and teamwork that I sensed even during my first interview. The Center’s leaders inspire and support a coherence that helps everyone here do their best work.”