Engineering design is a crucial component of the industrial product realization process. It is estimated that 70 percent or more of the life cycle cost of a product is determined during design. Effective engineering design, as some foreign firms especially have demonstrated, can improve quality, reduce costs, and speed time to market, thereby better matching products to customer needs. Effective design is also a prerequisite for effective manufacturing. Improving the practice of engineering design in U.S. firms is thus essential to industrial excellence and national competitiveness.
Unfortunately, the overall quality of engineering design in the United States is poor. The best engineering design practices are not widely used in U.S. industry, and the key role of engineering designers in the product realization process is often not well understood by management. Partnership and interaction among the three players involved in this endeavor—industries, universities, and government—have diminished to the point that none serves the needs of the others. Engineering curricula focus on a few conventional design procedures rather than on the entire product delivery process, and industry's efforts to teach engineering design tend to be fragmented. A revitalization of university research and teaching in engineering design has begun, but is not well correlated with the realities or scope of design practice, and research results are not effectively disseminated to industrial firms. Finally, the U.S. government has not recognized the enhancement of engineering design capabilities to be of national importance.
This state of affairs virtually guarantees the continued decline of U.S. competitiveness. To reverse this trend will require a complete rejuvenation of engineering design practice, education, and research, involving intense cooperation among industrial firms, universities, and government.
DESIGNING FOR COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE
To use design effectively as a tool for turning business strategy into effective products, a firm must (1) commit to continuous improvement both of products and of design and production processes, (2) establish a corporate product realization process (PRP) supported by top management, (3) develop and/or adopt and integrate advanced design practices into the PRP, and (4) create a supportive design environment.
Converting to operation under the discipline of a PRP is not easy. Often, complete reorganization from top to bottom and a dramatic change in the way of doing business are required. An effective PRP generally incorporates the following steps: define customer needs and product performance requirements; plan for product evolution beyond the current design; plan concurrently for design and manufacturing; design the product and its manufacturing processes with full consideration of the entire product life cycle, including distribution, support, maintenance, recycling, and disposal; and produce the product and monitor product and processes.
The PRP is a firm's strategy for product excellence and continuous improvement; design practices are its tactics. Because not all practices are applicable to or useful in the design of a given product, each company must carefully identify a set appropriate to its uses and incorporate them into its PRP. Practices (such as Taguchi methods) and tools (such as CAD and CAE) must be fully integrated into the PRP if they are to have more than minimal effect. Companies must also develop means of assimilating new practices as they are developed by researchers and others because currently effective practices are being improved and even superseded.
Design is a creative activity that depends on human capabilities that are difficult to measure, predict, and direct. An understanding of the design task and the characteristics and needs of people who design effectively is essential to the creation of a stimulating and nurturing design environment.
IMPROVING ENGINEERING DESIGN EDUCATION
Undergraduate and graduate engineering education is the foundation for successful practice, effective teaching, and relevant research in engineering design. The current state of that foundation is attested to by employers who find recent engineering graduates to be weak in design. Reasons for the inadequacy of undergraduate engineering design education include: weak requirements for design content in engineering curricula (many institutions do not meet even existing accreditation criteria); lack of truly interdisciplinary teams in design courses; and fragmented, discipline-specific, and uncoordinated teaching. Of the curricula that have strong design components, few consider state-of-the-art design methodologies.
There are simply too few strong graduate programs focusing on modern design methodologies and research to produce the qualified graduates needed by both industry and academe. Limited funding for design research impairs the quality of graduate programs in design and reduces the number of graduate students in the field that can be supported. Even the stronger programs rarely involve industry experience that would elucidate the realities of engineering design practice.
Significant improvement in engineering design is unlikely without strong, knowledgeable, enthusiastic faculty who interact with a broad base of colleagues in industry as well as academe. However, few faculty today are trained to teach design or are cognizant of its importance. Most have no significant industrial design experience, possess little understanding of manufacturing, and have only limited contacts with industry. Relevant textbooks are lacking, and many faculty are unfamiliar with the instructional techniques that best support design education. Faculty who would consider design as a career focus face a significant time commitment and institutional obstacles.
The initiative for immediate improvement of design education and for laying the groundwork for its longer-term sustained improvement lies clearly with educational institutions. Faculty and administrators, who sometimes disclaim responsibility for the problem and blame instead the “system,” must take the lead if it is to change. To improve the teaching of engineering design in universities will require: recognition of the deficiencies in design education; strong high level leadership in establishing goals for improving design education; development of metrics to measure progress toward these goals; creation of designated change agents to plan and implement improvements; and extensive training programs for both new and experienced design teachers.
Actions must also be taken to facilitate the teaching of design and to increase university-industry cooperation in design education. A national clearinghouse for design instructional materials could make the task of teaching design easier for many faculty. Industrial firms could help improve engineering design by encouraging faculty to work in industry, aiding universities in setting goals and planning curricula, and supporting research in engineering design.
A NATIONAL AGENDA FOR ENGINEERING DESIGN RESEARCH
Research is a central ingredient in repairing the national infrastructure in engineering design. It will contribute new knowledge, new ideas, and new people to industry and education and stimulate the creation of new business enterprises. Over time, a well-conceived, sustained program of engineering design research will gradually reduce U.S. companies' reliance on ad hoc
design methods and improve their ability to produce higher-quality, lower-cost products and reduce lead time to market for new or modified products.
Ten topics in three broad areas—developing scientific foundations for design models and methods, creating and improving design support tools, and relating design to the business enterprise—were deemed crucial to reforming the practice and teaching of engineering design. Collectively, they comprise a national research agenda that will serve to guide the National Science Foundation, other government agencies, private foundations, industrial firms, and individual researchers in the assignment of research priorities and selection of projects.
The proposed research is essential to the revitalization of the engineering design infrastructure in the United States and hence to U.S. competitiveness. Significant and useful intermediate (i.e., four- to five-year) results should be achievable for most topics. It is extremely important that this research, whether applied or basic, be of the highest quality and be conducted with frequent and close interaction between researchers and industry design engineers, and that results be disseminated to industry as well as to academe.
Results of university research in engineering design can find their way into industrial practice by a number of routes. However, even well developed research results cannot simply be “given” to industry; new methods must be refined and packaged as products, a task that cannot readily be performed by most universities or by most companies that might take advantage of the results. The creation of a National Consortium for Engineering Design (NCED) to perform this technology transfer role should be considered.
Industrial design practice, engineering education, and design research all can be improved. Many of the report's recommendations require only initiative by the actors and little investment. Companies must reorganize their product realization processes and at least adopt existing best design practices. They must also communicate better with universities in order to secure new design methods and well-prepared graduates. Universities, in turn, must make a high-level commitment to improve engineering design education and research and better relate them to the needs of industry. The government must make engineering design a national priority and encourage research by increasing funding and assisting in the establishment of clearinghouses for design information and teaching materials. Specific actions are recommended in the report.