The Reporter
Issue 489, 24 March 2003
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Feeling their way to a better package


Touchy feely testing – Cathy Barnes (centre) shows volunteers how the tests are run in the new SRIF-funded human factor laboratories, recently opened in mechanical engineering

What makes things feel good to touch? Researchers in mechanical engineering are trying to define the science behind our senses, to help manufacturers to develop products that we can’t wait to pick off the shelves.

Lead researcher Dr Cathy Barnes said: “Products are packaged for safety, hygiene, to ensure they will last and to make a product stand out amongst its competitors. But packaging could also be used to give the consumer added value, to make the product pleasurable to use and touch.”

The researchers have adapted a Japanese design system called Kansei engineering, used by companies such as Mazda, to gauge how consumers will respond to the look of a product. In Leeds, it’s being used for another of our senses – touch.
One technique within Kansei breaks down a product into different aspects and asks consumers to score each of them individually against a set of adjectives. The characteristics which score the highest are brought together to build up the highest scoring ‘whole’.

“We’re carrying out similar experiments, but are asking volunteers to grade different surfaces only by touch,” said Dr Barnes. “Items are placed inside boxes to ensure that visual input has no impact on the outcome.”

With the same samples, she is also measuring engineering characteristics such as slip factor, thermal properties and load deflection – how far you can press the surface in or how hard or soft it is. The results will be a valuable resource for all kinds of companies, allowing them to determine exactly what engineering properties are required to create a surface with the sensory properties most suited to their product.

The research is funded through the Faraday partnership, which links packaging companies with academic expertise.


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