Engineers Study Design Collaboration
When engineers build something, they typically come up with
lots of ideas and the final design uses only a few. So what happens to thought
process that leads to the final design? What happens to the discarded ideas?
What if you could capture those ideas so that other designers can access that
data and expertise? A designer could then search design repositories, much as
we search the Internet today, and pull out ideas to use for a new problem.
These are a few of the questions addressed by a team of electrical
and mechanical engineers and computer scientists from Drexel University,
Carnegie Melon University, and the University of Southern California (USC).
They studied how devices are designed through collaboration among engineers,
among software systems, and between engineers and software.
They also looked at how components within a device interact.
For example, there might be a complex device in which electrical, mechanical,
and software components all have to work together. The investigators developed
a method for modeling each component individually and then simulating the
system as a whole and seeing what it does.
The engineers at the three universities developed models for
how different agents in the collaborative design process interact. At USC, they
focused on how designers interact; at Carnegie Melon, the focus was interaction
among software components; and at Drexel, they looked at how people interact
with the components as stored in design repositories. As principal investigator
Bill Regli explains, "You model people and components as collaborating agents and
then try to predict what the outcome of the process will be. To model the
people, you use social science and psychology. To model the software and
systems, you use artificial intelligence and engineering techniques to
represent how components interoperate. Together, it's a really great
They also created a Design Repository to collect and disseminate examples. This
repository provides a focal point for collaboration for researchers, students,
and professionals. It also presents an opportunity to post challenge problems
and share results.
The insights into the collaborative process that have been
generated by this project have already influenced commercial products in
engineering design. This project will likely hasten advances in design,
architecture, and manufacturing processes.
According to Bill Regli, the project team "came up with new ways of
looking at certain interdisciplinary problems in design. Our hope is that this
work influences those who build commercial systems. The big impact is when you
get the ideas out there and it changes the way people think. As engineering
becomes more complex, we need better tools to help engineers work, and to do
that, we need better models of how they work. We hope to influence the
development of the tools and the models. What has changed is that the problems
aren't just from a single discipline anymore."
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