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Design Repository

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.

Image of model of the project goalsThese 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 interdisciplinary problem."

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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