Volume: 135(2) - February, 2013
This is an excellent time for engineering design research. Not only is the National Science Foundation continuing its strong support for fundamental research in design, but the Department of Defense is pulling together a major new program in Engineered Resilient Systems at a level of funding that can completely change the field, and NASA’s Langley Research Center is considering a new research thrust in complex engineered systems. Also, the Department of Defense sponsored Systems Engineering Research Center, a consortium of about two dozen universities, led by the Stevens Institute of Technology is conducting a substantial number of high quality research programs in systems engineering and continues to receive robust funding. And the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Adaptive Vehicle Make program is committing hundreds of millions of dollars to demonstrate a radically new approach to design and development of complex systems.
The impetus for all this funding is a crying need for more effective design. Research from my group at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, to be presented at this year’s Conference on Systems Engineering Research, shows that the Department of Defense loses about $200 million per day in major weapon system cost overruns, program delays, and program reductions or cancellations. Experiences at NASA and Boeing, and at similar organizations outside the United States are essentially the same, although the Pentagon’s programs are larger, more numerous, and better documented in the open literature (which is why we study them). I believe that the problems experienced by these programs are due to ineffective methods, processes and tools.
It is fair to ask how this can be, when the pages of this Journal are mainly devoted to disseminating the discovery and construction of design methods, processes and tools. I see two reasons why our work to date has failed to stanch the bleeding of our largest engineering efforts. First, we do not have a way to measure the quality of methods, processes and tools against a rigorous, widely accepted theory of design – in fact, we do not have such a theory. For large design projects performed within big organizations, we have hardly any theory useful for validating or comparing design methods. Second, the design theories we have do not sufficiently recognize the human, social, and organizational aspects of creating large systems.
These two reasons are not problems for our research community. Instead, they are opportunities. We now have some nascent design theories circulating in our community with rigorous, sound foundations. The work is far from complete, but I think we have shown that we are up to it. And, we are making steady progress integrating learning from the social sciences into our design research. In fact, social-science-based or –linked design research is not at all new, but I believe it will become much more pervasive in the next few years.
This is a new dawn in engineering design. Our field is on the verge of rapid growth into many deeply interesting areas. Hold your hats.
Program Director, Engineering and Systems Design, National Science Foundation
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s alone. They do not necessarily reflect any positions of the National Science Foundation.