Biohaviour - Building the Blind Watchmaker

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Sch Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering


To create many of the complex products and systems we have around us we have needed advanced technology. But to create the volume and complexity of products we have also needed complex organisational systems and processes. Large complex organisations have in particular relied on the Systems Engineering process, to help guide complex projects to completion. Many products, such as aircraft, only exist because of this systematic approach. But this systematic approach has a downside. To maintain control of a complex design it is necessary to fix ideas and concepts, and work through detail in a top-down approach. This flow down keeps development within the bounds of the original idea or concept, but naturally prevents innovation and variation. Such variation and innovation are in some ways the enemy of the controlled organisation needed to keep a global enterprise on track. One great fear is the phenomenon of emergence; inherently unknowable behaviour. Ironically this kind of innovation is desperately needed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by new technologies, such as additive manufacturing, or distributed cloud based manufacturing. But marrying these technologies within a complex fixed organisational structure and process is very difficult.

Building on the success of the Design the Future project "In Search of Design Genes" this work looks to nature for inspiration, for an unconstrained approach to engineering design. Introducing the concept of 'Biohaviour' we follow the behaviour of natural growth rather than biomimicry. The creation of an elemental set of rules based on energy and equilibrium, could allow variation to naturally arise in design. In nature, the rules are applied blindly with no fixed final form. That final form only arising as a consequence of its environment. Trees and bamboo are wonderful examples of this.

Our hypothesis is that by reimagining design as a series of elemental rules and growth mechanisms that react to environment and stimuli, the design of complex systems will be simplified, and emergence could be used as a tool for innovation beyond conventional paradigms.

We see four major challenges:
* Obtaining growth rules for component seeds to allow components to emerge from the activity
* Defining stimuli that will make the component seeds grow and establishing if that growth can be controlled via the stimuli.
* Developing fast, scalable, event triggered systems to enable real time creation of complex designs.
* Capturing the emergent behaviour into a working set of parameters which can interact with existing design and manufacturing systems - i.e. is there a set of parameters which will define a CAD model?

In this project we will investigate theoretical aspects of this approach, and the practical implications of using these elementary rules in engineering design. We will develop novel computational methods for fast, scalable, event triggered systems to represent component seeds' growth behaviour, which will create a design depending on the environment around it. The seeds will grow to form a more complete component or system which can be envisioned in a CAD system. The seeds and shoots will have the ability to spawn others as the system develops in response to the environment. For example, forming a branch, or root, or in an engineering context a stiffener or hole.

The result should be a set of rules encapsulated in a prototype Cloud service, that will automatically create a component from a simple seed definition. Depending on its surroundings, it will grow large or small, taking form, shape & colour according to need. One seed should be capable of producing a variety of solutions, generating innovation naturally. By tweaking the rules and behaviours we expect to allow some emergent behaviour to occur. This feeds back to the aim of this study - to establish if these elementary rules can be put to effective use in design - and to create the Blind Watchmaker.

Planned Impact

The concept within this proposal is a new way of approaching design. This will have dramatic impact across manufacturing enterprises, changing how they operate and introducing opportunity for new business models, and bringing economic and environmental benefit. Manufacturing sales accounted for £357.8Bn in 2015 and this proposal aims to enhance this area. It also has the potential to impact society through novel products, the design of which it will facilitate.

An important aspect of the work is the seeds in which the rules will be programmed. In the future this will transform the entire design enterprise and role of the designer. Gifted designers will have more significant impact as they will be responsible for programming seeds that will be exploited more widely by many other designers. A new infrastructure will be developed to support the use of these seeds. For example, the seed for a heat pump may be defined by the concept owner. This will contain the information to develop the system, its basic form and function. The seed would then be sold to a local manufacturing company that will add its own environmental elements as inputs. This might include aesthetics such as colour & shape, and technical aspects such as materials and processes. Innovation would prosper with lower technical skills needed to nurture a seed into the final form of a product, allowing those with creative skills to flourish, creating and nurturing new designs just as a gardener nurtures their plants. It offers the potential for high-tech, entrepreneurial, "cottage industries" as people will be able to program and trade their own seeds. These will then be exploitable by big industry, without the person being employed by them directly. This could enable more creative people to impact the economy more quickly than is currently realised.

New generations of technologies or processes can more easily be integrated by simply including the relevant behaviours in the agents, so that new gnerations of products emerge influenced by those technologies and processes. Enhancement and improvement naturally occurring.

Ultimately, by offering design seeds as a Cloud service, the supply chain will self select. Manufacturing agents representing individual companies will interact with the seed agents and offer a service (or product) provider a range of designs & costs, depending on which agents combine for the given seed and environment. This will be a different procurement approach for customers, and different bidding process for companies, providing fluidity, innovation and appropriate local solutions. This is a radical shift from today's approach to product development, manufacturing and sales, and it is essential that the UK is at the forefront of its realisation.

The project partners are central to the impact that will be delivered. Glen Dimplex is is the world's largest manufacturer of electrical heating and owns a number of subsidiary companies well known through out the world. For example Morphy Richards is so popular that at least one of their appliances can be found in over 90% of UK households. Airbus is a major manufacturer and is a global a pioneer in aircraft design. Their products are the pinnacle of achievement in large, complex engineering systems. Their ability to innovate has significant impact on society, the environment and the UK economy. ITI supply innovative CAD/CAE software to many of the major industries in the UK and America (e.g. Airbus, Rolls-Royce, BAE). Deloitte run major multi-disciplinary projects requiring integrated and innovative technology solutions to transform their clients' businesses. Realising this ambitious research with these leading partners will ensure major impact. The PDRAs will benefit from being involved in an innovative, industrially relevant and well supported project, while developing as researchers and future leaders.


10 25 50
Description Key Note Speach - 17th International Conference On Manufacturing Research Incorporating the 34th National Conference on Manufacturing Research 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Delivered a keynote speech to a major conference audience of academia, industry and research organisations. The audience was approximately 150.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018