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Volume optimization of a cuboid

This is an extension of the Nrich task which is currently live – where students have to find the maximum volume of a cuboid formed by cutting squares of size x from each corner of a 20 x 20 piece of paper.  I’m going to use an n x 10 rectangle and see what the optimum x value is when n tends to infinity.

First we can find the volume of the cuboid:

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Next we want to find when the volume is a maximum, so differentiate and set this equal to 0.

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Next we use the quadratic formula to find the roots of the quadratic, and then see what happens as n tends to infinity (i.e we want to see what the optimum x values are for our cuboid when n approaches infinity).  We only take the negative solution of the + – quadratic solutions because this will be the only one that fits the initial problem.

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Next we try and simplify the square root by taking out a factor of 16, and then we complete the square for the term inside the square root (this will be useful next!)

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Next we make a u substitution.  Note that this means that as n approaches infinity, u approaches 0.

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Substituting this into the expression gives us:

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We then manipulate the surd further to get it in the following form:

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Now, the reason for all that manipulation becomes apparent – we can use the binomial expansion for the square root of 1 + u2 to get the following:

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Therefore we have shown that as the value of n approaches infinity, the value of x that gives the optimum volume approaches 2.5cm.

So, even though we start with a pretty simple optimization task, it quickly develops into some quite complicated mathematics.  We could obviously have plotted the term in n to see what its behavior was as n approaches infinity, but it’s nicer to prove it.  So, let’s check our result graphically.

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As we can see from the graph, with n plotted on the x axis and x plotted on the y axis we approach x = 2.5 as n approaches infinity – as required.

An m by n rectangle.

So, we can then extend this by considering an n by m rectangle, where m is fixed and then n tends to infinity.  As before the question is what is the value of x which gives the maximum volume as n tends to infinity?

We do the same method.  First we write the equation for the volume and put it into the quadratic formula.

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Next we complete the square, and make the u substitution:

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Next we simplify the surd, and then use the expansion for the square root of 1 + u2

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This then gives the following answer:

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So, we can see that for an n by m rectangle, as m is fixed and n tends to infinity, the value of x which gives the optimum volume tends to m/4.  For example when we had a 10 by n rectangle (i.e m = 10) we had x = 2.5.  When we have a 20 by n rectangle we would have x = 5 etc.

And we’ve finished!  See what other things you can explore with this problem.