Assuring the quality of design descriptions through the use of design configuration spaces

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Mechanical Engineering


The success of today's global supply networks depends on the efficient and effective communication of design descriptions (including design intent and shape definitions) that suit the requirements and capabilities of the wide range of engineering functions, processes and suppliers involved in the delivery of products to markets. Technical product data packages are used to provide these design descriptions. At a recent industry summit, a representative of Boeing noted that some 40% of the technical data needed to create a product resides outside the shape definitions in the technical product data package. The focus of this project is on the Bills of Materials (BoMs) that are integral parts of both shape definitions and the 40% of non-shape related product data. BoMs are fundamental because they act as integrators: adapting detailed design descriptions to suit the needs of particular engineering processes. The ability to reconfigure BoMs while maintaining internal consistency of the technical data package (where all BoM configurations are complete and compatible with each other) is a major challenge.

This proposal builds on a feasibility study that explored the use of embedding* to associate multiple BoMs with a single design description. From an engineering design perspective, based on discussions with four local SMEs and work on a case study related to a Rolls-Royce combustion system, we uncovered an urgent industry need to be able to associate multiple BoMs with one or more design descriptions. This need has remained hidden because current design technologies tend to subsume BoMs in proprietary data representations. However, engineers use BoMs and other design structures to adapt design descriptions for specific purposes. For this reason, new design technologies are needed that make BoMs and other design structures available for engineers to work with directly. From a design technology perspective, we have demonstrated that hypercube lattices can act as computational spaces within which BoMs can be reconfigured. However, the generated lattices are vast and, although we made in excess of hundred-fold improvements in the speed of lattice generation after consultation with the Leeds Advanced Research Computing team, the problem remains exponential in nature. For this project, the lattices will remain in the background, as a part of the technical apparatus. From an organisational psychology perspective, the ability to reconfigure BoMs creates opportunities for new ways of managing engineering knowledge in product development systems that take account of human and organisational behaviours, and individual preferences.

The goal of this project is to establish theoretical foundations, validated through a series of sharable software prototypes, to enable the reconfiguration of BoMs. The software prototypes will be designed for use by academic and industrial users to experiment with their own data and build understanding of the kinds of functionality required in such design tools. This will allow companies to better specify their long term information technology requirements for their IT system providers. A staged software engineering process will be used and a series of open source prototypes published at roughly six month intervals. This will create opportunities for meaningful interactions within the research team, and give industry partners early access to the research and opportunities to influence the research direction. In parallel, through the development of case studies in collaboration with industry partners and colleagues in other disciplines, we will build understanding of other types of design structure that occur in engineering design processes and develop cross-disciplinary learning opportunities.

* Embedding is a mathematical mechanism that allows one instance of a construct to be superimposed on another.

Planned Impact

The proposed research has high potential impact for a number of problem domains and solution providers. For engineering design, the research could improve key decision making activities by changing the ways in which engineers think about and work with BoMs and engineering information. In addition, there is potential for wider impact in other engineering sectors. For example, in the construction industry, the research could enhance the efficiency and effectiveness with which Building Information Models (BIM) are created and used through the whole life of a building. The research will also impact the maths, computing and system vendor communities by providing requirements for general purpose implementations of BoM configuration methods and tools. Our challenge lies in realising this impact for such a wide range of audiences and communities.

With respect to the RCUK typology of research impacts, the research will create both academic, and economic and societal impact.

Academic impact: Scientific advancement will be in the form of new implementation mechanisms that provide step improvements in the functionality of software used to configure BoMs. By making the benefits of embedding available to a wider community, who will not need to understand embedding or hypercube lattices to experience their benefits, we will improve relationships between industrial users and academic researchers which will lead to improved understanding of requirements for engineering, mathematics and computing. The work will improve the health of the academic discipline of engineering design by providing theoretical foundations for future generations of digital design system and improving our ability to work with BoMs. In addition, the open source software prototypes and learning resources will allow academics not involved with the project to develop future research from the software prototypes we develop and use findings in their teaching. The project will also develop three highly skilled PDRAs and enhance their CVs through publications and engagement with industry and other academic disciplines.

Economic and societal impact: If it became possible to easily and reliably configure multiple BoMs, as and when needed, then the efficiency and effectiveness of product development processes would be dramatically improved. This, in turn, could improve the innovation capacity of the organisations that operate these processes so contributing to wealth creation and economic prosperity. One of the real challenges in maximising environmental sustainability and protection through the life of large complex products lies in the poor quality of the product data that is available to engineers and other professionals once a product is in use. This is especially so when there is a need for information on how the product has been used after it was commissioned. The project will contribute to the development of engineering students (undergraduate and postgraduate): at Leeds and the OU through student projects linked to the research and in other institutions through digital learning assets published on Jorum (or equivalent) and downloadable software prototypes whose use will be integrated with projects associated with the digital assets.


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