In Ancient Egypt there exists evidence of the basic design process of defining objectives, performing research, specifying requirements, iterating while developing solutions, and prototyping before building the final version. The same process is followed today.
What has changed enormously, however, is the understanding of the underlying scientific principles and, more importantly, the tools used to make design decisions. Given the rapid developments over the past few decades, it begs the question as to how new technology can change the way we do engineering design of complex structures and machines.
Looking at the past 20 years, one of the biggest advancements has been the development of scientific computing and the use of computer simulation and visualization. For example, the areas of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and finite element modeling (FEM) have changed the way industrial equipment is designed by reducing the need for expensive experiments and scale mock-ups.
How much computer simulations save in terms of development cost is debatable since the simulation codes themselves need to be validated via experiments. What is undeniable, however, is the increase in productivity and ability to inexpensively try many designs to select the best one. This enables complex machines to be designed faster, with a final product that has better performance since a wider range of solutions are explored digitally.
Looking forward, there are many new tools that are being used to improve engineering design. For now, however, we would like to focus on two recent emerging trends: The role of social media and additive manufacturing in engineering design.
Social Media: Engineering Powerhouse
The widespread use of social media has revolutionized how individuals around the world interact with each other. Similarly, the use of social media is finding its way into engineering design via the concepts of open innovation. Companies jealously guard their engineering prowess – it’s the crown jewel of innovation. As a result, design solutions are developed entirely in-house. This involves, at most, a few thousand engineers for the largest companies. By definition, the number of ideas and solutions that can be explored is limited.
There is a growing recognition that open innovation enables a competitive advantage by tapping into the world’s billions of minds for solutions. We’re now seeing companies using social media to crowd-source design challenges with prizes for the top solution. Far from being marketing gimmicks, these challenges are tied directly to solving specific engineering design problems encountered by the product engineers. The key is to abstract the problem sufficiently so that the solution is applicable, without revealing too much information to competitors.
Proctor & Gamble has been using this design challenge approach for more than a decade to tackle some of its most intriguing problems. Similarly, GE recently used such a challenge to design a lighter weight, lower cost aerospace mounting bracket. More than 700 entries were submitted and the winning design weighed less than one pound, compared to the original bracket design that was four-and-a-half pounds.
Large corporations have to address many issues such as intellectual property, unambiguously specifying the problem, and defining the evaluation criteria. One of the lessons learned was that tapping into a billion minds resulted in a very large number of submissions. GE’s evaluation became an unexpected bottleneck as judges were simply overwhelmed. An interesting suggestion evolved: Can the evaluation itself be somehow crowd-sourced? A key unanswered question is the sustainability of such a crowd-sourced solution approach. Ten of the 700 entries in GE’s contest were awarded cash prizes – that left 690 entrants who were uncompensated for their efforts. And many efforts were significant. Will participation in similar future challenges result in similar worldwide interest?
What is also interesting is the fundamental change in engineering design that went from a process of creative invention to a process of effective evaluation.
Enter 3D Printing
This leads very naturally into the role of additive manufacturing. As mentioned earlier, computer simulation changed engineering design because of its ability to rapidly experiment and prototype different solutions. This replaced a cumbersome physical experimentation process that was significantly limited by the expensive process of building and testing all the possible configurations. The challenge remains, however, in the fidelity of the simulations and relying solely on simulation for the final design.
The multi-billion dollar delays to the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787 can be partially attributed to shortfalls in the simulations used. As a result, it becomes apparent that a hybrid approach of simulation and rapid prototype testing becomes critical to the modern engineer’s design arsenal. Additive manufacturing, sometimes referred to as 3D printing, is one of the key enablers as it inexpensively translates the digital geometry to a manufactured test article. This enables the engineering design process to return to physical experimentation for real-world validation. Instead of relying on simulation to generate the best solution – and hoping it is indeed the best – it’s now becoming feasible to use simulation to generate the top 10 designs and testing each one. Furthermore, each of the designs can be radically different since the cost of making the part is largely dictated by the material cost alone. In fact, no longer bound by the limitations of traditional machining techniques, the simulations can be let loose to produce even more optimal designs that are extremely complex. This approach was used in the GE aerospace mounting bracket challenge where the top 10 designs were all manufactured and tested – something that would have been inconceivable previously.
From Ancient Egypt to today, the idea of iterating on different solutions has been core to the engineering design process. The evolution that lead to the design of the Pyramids of Giza spanned centuries with design concepts traced to the earliest mastabas (mud-brick tombs) first used in 3200 BC. Imhotep is largely credited with designing the first stone pyramid at Saqqara in 2680 BC, which was the precursor to the Great Pyramid in 2560 BC.
Each of these iterations spanned hundreds of years, and in most cases, the design was entirely conceived by single individuals. With today’s technologies of social media and additive manufacturing, the design cycle of complex systems can be greatly enhanced by engaging millions of minds around the world to produce the best solutions in time-scales of weeks instead of centuries. The key challenge for the design engineer of the future involves developing engagement models and evaluation techniques to access the collective creativity of humanity, rather than relying on the ingenuity of the few. As a leader of your company, how are you preparing to compete in this new world of global open engineering design?
Adam Rasheed is a Senior Research Engineer at GE Global Research focusing on hypersonics, advanced propulsion, pulse detonation engines and most recently, operations research. William T. Carter, Ph.D. is a research scientist in the Additive Manufacturing Lab for GE Global Research. His work concentrates on additive manufacturing of metal parts for aircraft engines.