McKeldin Library, University of Maryland, College Park
Amazon Lab126 is collaborating with the University of Maryland’s Center for Risk and Reliability (CRR), one of the most respected institutions in the country for risk and reliability research. Above is the McKeldin Library on the University of Maryland, College Park campus.
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Lab126, University of Maryland collaborate to develop reliability models to build resilient devices

Amazon Lab126 and the Center for Risk and Reliability will study how devices are accidentally damaged — and how to help ensure they survive more of those incidents.

Amazon digital devices such as Kindle e-readers, Fire tablets, Fire TV, and Echo speakers have become part of the everyday fabric of life for millions of customers.

But people being people, things happen. Devices get dropped, dunked in a sink, left in a hot car, or any other number of accidents. Sometimes that leads to cracked screens, dead batteries, broken speaker capacitors, and more.

Amazon Lab126 logo
Located in Sunnyvale, Calif., the team at Lab126 designs and engineers Fire tablets, Kindle e-readers, Amazon Fire TV, Amazon Echo, and other devices.
Credit: Jordan Stead

Amazon Lab126, the research and development organization that designs and develops many of its digital devices, has long worked to understand how things go wrong with digital devices. Now the lab has taken that a step further via a collaboration with the University of Maryland’s Center for Risk and Reliability (CRR), one of the most respected institutions in the country for risk and reliability research.

Founded in 1985, CRR serves as the umbrella organization for much of the reliability research work underway at the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering. That work includes predictive reliability and human reliability analysis methods, advanced probabilistic inference methods, system-level health monitoring and prognostics, risk analysis theory, and more.

For Amazon, the collaboration presents a chance to deploy world-class research on very real-world problems.

“We conduct extensive research to understand how our customers use their devices, and potentially or accidentally misuse them,” Guneet Sethi, senior reliability engineering manager of Lab126, said. “In our collaboration with CRR, we hope to better model customer behavior so we can make our devices more reliable.”

Amazon’s digital devices already undergo extensive durability testing before they hit the market. But those tests typically are conducted in laboratory conditions. While useful, they may not replicate all the unexpected kinds of things users are apt to do.

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As part of the collaboration, Lab126 is sharing pertinent information pertaining to potential customer use cases, the reported nature of the failure modes, and how Amazon devices behave in different situations.

“As you can imagine, customers using a device can find multiple ways to unintentionally stress it,” said Sethi. “They might accidentally drop it, sit on it, expose it to high heat or humidity, or even get sanitizer on it. CRR will help us model customer behavior and then test our devices against that.”

CRR will develop universal mathematical models that incorporate multiple damage-inducing stresses (environmental, mechanical, and electrical) a device might be exposed to during usage and then apply the models to create reliability test specifications.

Understanding and modeling the user stresses is critical as they can both help minimize the risk of failure by design and estimate risk through engineering failure evaluation methods such as the stress-strength analysis method. Amazon devices then can be tested against these reliability test specifications to make the devices resistant to stresses during their lifetime.

A product that lasts a long time is good for many things, including sustainability. We hope to share the outcome of this collaborative research with the rest of the world so any device makers can use it to build better devices.
Prasad Chaparala, director of hardware reliability for Amazon

For CRR students, the collaboration is a chance to apply their academic expertise on real-world problems.

“We specialize in looking at how different kinds of equipment perform in the field,” Mohammad Modarres, director for CRR said. “We use physics and engineering methods and combine them to assess how a piece of equipment will perform in the field.

Modarres said CRR has about eight faculty members and around 40 “really smart students,” many of them working on doctorates.

One of those doctorate students is Neda Shafiei, who is earning her mechanical engineering PhD through CRR at the University of Maryland. She already has begun building reliability models for testing Amazon devices working closely with Aaron Krive, hardware reliability lead at Lab126.

“The Amazon project gives me the opportunity to bridge academic research with real-world problems,” Shafiei said. “I’ve been working with some really experienced professors to learn complex analytics and inference skills. My collaboration with engineers from the Amazon reliability group has made me more aware of the industrial aspects of reliability engineering.”

For Amazon, another benefit of the collaboration extends to cultivating a new generation of students who might decide to make Amazon part of their career path. That is a huge factor at a time when top-tier technical talent is in extremely high demand.

In fact, the University of Maryland is only 21 miles from Amazon’s new Arlington, Virginia headquarters.

That certainly might appeal to Shafiei once she earns her doctorate. “Amazon has a wide range of products,” she said. “Analysis of their reliability is challenging and interesting. I have found the Amazon reliability team to be a place where I can implement the reliability analysis techniques that I have learned.” 

Amazon’s partnership with CRR will help fund graduate students’ work and develop a universal statistical methodology to model user stresses for testing digital devices.

“Our vision is to build a durable product,” said Prasad Chaparala, director of hardware reliability for Amazon. “And a product that lasts a long time is good for many things, including sustainability. We hope to share the outcome of this collaborative research with the rest of the world so any device makers can use it to build better devices.”

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