17:00 PM

A Dapper Device for Dumb Dryers

Pitt’s Design Lab students partner with Microsoft to create a device that can track a laundry dryer’s cycle

Noah Lichstein, a rising senior in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, is in a bad mood – and out of breath. 

The reliably unreliable dryer at his Oakland apartment is located down six flights of stairs. He’s already restarted the cycle twice, and his clothes still aren’t dry. He then sent a group text to his classmates, electrical and computer engineering senior Raheel Farouk and recent graduate Stephanie da Costa, in his ECE Undergraduate Industry Project class, held in the Design Education Laboratory, to vent his frustrations. 

“I kept having to go down to the laundry area and was just super frustrated,” Lichstein said. “We all had been dealing with bad dryers, so I knew everyone could relate. I just kept thinking that it would be so much easier to be able to see if my clothes were done on my phone.” 

At the time, the group was still deciding on a central project to develop and build for their class. 

A lightbulb went off – and Lichstein’s clothes finally dried. 

A Electrifying Partnership

The ECE Undergraduate Industry Project class isn’t a typical class. 

Junior-level students are expected to develop projects for a partnering company. This year, Microsoft signed on to explore innovative capabilities with the Azure Sphere, a small, hardware, software and cloud service platform. 

To be enrolled in the class, Sam Dickerson, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the department, vets a number of resumes and applications before forwarding them to the company, which then selects the best candidates. 

Dryer Device

“The class works more like an internship than a traditional class,” Dickerson said. “The biggest difference is that students are getting class credit rather than getting paid. Some students have even received full-time job offers after completing it.” 

Susan Timko, a Microsoft site business manager, is always searching for local talent in the Pittsburgh area. She became aware of the Design Education Laboratory – also known as the Design Lab – through mutual connections and was impressed after meeting with Dickerson. 

“Pitt has a great academic reputation, so I’ve been working to learn more about the programs offered and get more connected with the people who power those programs,” Timko said. “After learning about Dickerson’s goals for the lab, the opportunity to interact with students and the relevant curriculum that is being taught at Pitt, we knew we wanted to be a sponsor.” 

Making a Dumb Dryer Smart 

Classes in the Design Lab aren’t structured with hard deadlines or a full project plan. 

For their project, Lichstein and his classmates met with Justin McCann, their Microsoft mentor and principal software engineer at Microsoft, once a week. Students are expected to manage their own deadlines and serve as their own project managers. 

McCann coordinated meetings between the students and the experts and designers behind the Azure Sphere, and helped plan developments with an insider knowledge that was new to the students. 

“Microsoft has so many resources and tools at their fingertips, which offers a whole other dimension of insight,” Lichstein said. “I have to say though that the biggest resource was working up close and personally with these brilliant engineers.” 

McCann was equally impressed with the level of professionalism the students brought to each meeting. 

“Part of the design process is to quickly explore different possible solutions, and it can be difficult to judge how far you should push into a new area,” McCann said. “They had a strong technical background to build on, and the confidence and insight to ask great questions. They handled a complex project very well – from low-level embedded systems to cloud-based machine learning.” 

The group worked through a number of ideas to create a device which uses the Azure Sphere’s hardware to make drying clothes easier and faster. The resulting device can attach to any dryer and track how the dryer’s acceleration changes over time through an accelerometer attached to the Azure Sphere’s software development kit and the students’ own machine-learning model. Students were able to understand that wet laundry has a different mass and tumbles to a vibration that’s a distinctly different signature compared to dry laundry. When the acceleration change matches the profile of dry clothes, the user is then notified their laundry is done on their smart device. 

“What the students essentially did was turn a dumb dryer into a smart one,” Dickerson explained. 

A Global Presentation on Doing Laundry 

Lichstein said this process of collecting information and applying it to a real-world problem is a key component of Microsoft's Azure Sphere – as well as engineering. 

“Our class felt like this was a really good way to not only learn how to work with the Azure Sphere, but also a good use for daily life,” Lichstein said. “We all challenged ourselves to create something that anyone could use.” 

Students presented their device to Microsoft engineers all over the world. They were impressed to say the least. 

“The students did a fantastic job of presenting a highly technical topic to a broad audience,” McCann said. “They explained concepts well for people who had only heard of the Internet of Things, and in enough detail to keep the experts engaged. They clearly explained the problem, their designed solution, what they were able to implement, and its drawbacks.” 

Dana Romano, director of career and industry engagement at the Swanson School, is new to the world of engineering after working at Pitt’s Katz Graduate School of Business for 20 years. In her role at the Swanson School, Romano is instrumental in bridging partnerships between the school and companies – including for this class. She was able to attend the students’ presentation and was “blown away” by what they developed. 

“I came into the project not knowing too much about it, and I was able to fully understand and follow along with what the students did,” Romano said. 

Lichstein said he gained both soft and hard skills by participating in the class and feels more prepared to work in small teams and present to large groups of people. 

Hopefully, his clothes will be dry in time.