Engineering Design Tools, UX, and Flow

In psychology flow is the state in which a person performing an activity is fully emersed in the activity feeling an energizing focus, full involvment, and joy. The concept of flow was introduced into psychology by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi a Hungarian Psychologist.

I believe that the concept of flow is also relevant for practicing designers who probably develop their best design ideas within this state. The feeling of being immersed in an activity of quickly sketching, evaluating, discarding or changing ideas is maybe a very accurate description for highly productive , innovative, and creative design (it would be very interesting to hear from you how and whether they experience such flow states during their work).

Looking at the ongoing digitalization of design work with computational design support software, I am wondering whether the user interfaces of these applications are really designed towards getting a user into the flow state. Though I think it is possible to smartly design user interfaces that would seamlessly allow for this. I think we can borrow here from the computer game industry that has designed a number of games that are highly addictive (yes, I started playing Aven Colony yesterday evening and went too bed much too late) that could be considered integrated design tools.

Aven Colony is such an example. The goal of the game is to design a space station that is economically prosperous and provides a happy living space for colonists. Basically an integrated urban planning design support tool with advanced simulation features. The user interface of Aven Colony is highly intuitive, after playing the game for 30-60 minutes its functionality is entirely understood. But of course, it does not stop there … once understood, of course, the flow starts, so it is very easy to forget the time and play all night long … something to be avoided for real design support applications from employee health and safety aspects.

Product Modeling and Product Development Processes (Are we doing this with BIM?)

The design of complex engineering products is characterized by parallel problem solving of large design teams, distributed team work, and complex project management patterns. So the long standing question remains how to support this work with digital technologies and databases that can store the quickly evolving, changing, and complex data over the product development life-cycle.

The digital solutions to support complex process patterns have to support a number of different varying needs with respect to how product information is represented. A good categorization of different representation forms is provided in the seminal paper of Krause et al. that I want to reiterate here:

  • Structure-oriented product models that describe the components of an engineering system and that lend themselves well for managing the suppliers, parts, quantities of the engineering product
  • Geometry-oriented product models that, well, describe the geometrical shape of the engineering product
  • Feature-oriented product models that represent the product in terms of form-features that often can be directly related to different geometries
  • Knowledge-based product models that describe the engineering product in terms of an ontology mapping the knowledge that is required during the product development process

All these different ways to represent a product, of course, are required during designing and engineering a complex engineering product. All these different ways also need to be combined and adjusted to the required engineering processes at each stage of the engineering design process. Now quite some of the processes at each stage are also running in parallel (yes: Integrated engineering). So the question is how well we support this with the existing BIM applications in civil engineering design? Again something I would like to post here as food for though for an ongoing discussion.

Robotic Construction Automation and Engineering Knowledge

The worldwide labor shortage, a continuous push towards increasing construction productivity, and the surge in computational power has triggered a new wave of research into construction robotics lately. So far, much of this work has focused on exploring the technical aspects of robotic design in terms of locomotion, sensing, and manipulating technology. Moreover, research into new construction materials, in particular, to allow for additive manufacturing moves prominently into the spotlight of our research activities.

To pave the way forward, I believe that an additional topic for scientific research will be equally important: Formalizing advanced engineering and trade knowledge. Considering that robots need to take over tasks that humans are conducting on construction sites (not only labor related, but also planning related), we need to clearly and explicitly understand the knowledge these humans possess to inform the design of robots. Gaining such an understanding will be important for all aspects of robotic design; for deciding upon robotic hardware in terms of locomotion, sensing, and manipulating and for developing robotic software – from sensor interpretation to path finding. Equally important, formalizing engineering knowledge is required to develop new design methods and materials.

To understand and formalize engineering knowledge for robotic design, research is required: a sound body of research methodologies will need to be developed that is based on design thinking, but also provide the means for sound validation (in the real world and simulation based). We also should review the existing robotic solutions that have been proposed in the past and understand how engineering knowledge has influenced their design in retrospective studies.

The NO FREE LUNCH theorem for point cloud processing

As scanning technology gets cheaper the availability of point clouds for buildings is increasing significantly. At the same time decades of research exist that has tried to convert point clouds to semantically rich Building Information Models, a practice that has been recently termed Scan2BIM. Despite the significant past research a breakthrough is not visible that allows us to convert point cloud data to general purpose BIM models. Since quite some time, I am therefore wondering whether a general purpose Scan2BIM conversion is possible at all. To me it rather seems as if conversion processes need to be closely steered by very detailed and specific information requirements. These information requirements should be based on a sound analysis of engineering decisions that are to be made on the information. Once it is clear what information to extract and in what detail this information is required, dedicated extraction algorithms can be developed. Looking at the recently published studies research seems to shift towards such specific purposes. However, such processes can hardly be labeled general purpose Scan2BIM.

The entire discussion reminds me of a paper that I was writing some years ago with Robert Amor and Bill East about the sense and non-sense of general purpose information models. While writing, Bill suggested that we should argue for a FREE LUNCH THEOREM (NFL) for information models. We all liked the idea, but the reviewers did not, so the NFL for information models never made it into the final publication. Bill’s idea was inspired by the NFL theorem in search and optimization. Once this theorem was established, it immediately stopped the extensive research efforts into the ideal general purpose optimization method. More about the NFL for search and optimization here.

Now years later I think we should consider a NFL for point cloud processing as well. For research the existence of such a NFL would have quite some ramifications. It would require a much more humble approach to point cloud processing focusing on very small purposeful engineering applications and the development of clear ontologies describing the knowledge required for these applications. These ontologies then need to steer the development of the geometric point cloud extraction methods. Developed methods would, however, not work for generalized purposes.

A viable green business model: Building renovation consultancy for a district

I was just working on an initial business plan for a consultancy business for Architects to support and manage renovation planning and execution. The consultancy service is targeted towards local districts and assumes that the service providers are able to build a strong network with the local property owners in this district. I envisioned a number of services that could be provided that follow the 4M process we designed during our P2Endure project:

  • providing a service for an initial evaluation for the feasibility of a renovation (Mapping)
  • supporting the detailed planning of the renovation with energy simulation, engineering the renovation, and managing the supply chain for executing the renovation work (Modeling and Making)
  • setting up continuous monitoring to be able to assess renovation possibilities on a continuous basis throughout the life-cycle of a building (Monitoring)

I conducted an initial financial assessment for a district of roughly 100 privately owned properties and roughly 20% of owners who are interested in upgrading the properties. The assessment resulted in a sound business for an office with two partners. Such businesses could significantly improved the renovation rate of the building stock in Europe and, in turn, make a large contribution to the reduction of CO2. All in all a true green deal business deal. We will discuss this business mode now internally within the P2Endure project, but once the model is formally published I will provide an update. Stay tuned!

Reading about circular economy

While preparing for our new module ‘Circular economy for the Built Environment: Principles, Practices and Methods’ I was reading three papers today in an effort to select some required readings for our students.

I first read Ghisellini et al (2016) ‘A review on circular economy: the expected transition to a balanced interplay of environmental and economic systems‘. This is a very comprehensive review of a large amount of papers, however, the results from this review were a little inconclusive. In the end, the paper reiterates the different approaches taken in China and the EU, while China employs top-down planning and the EU bottom-up planning. The paper also stresses the need for good business models.

I then read chapter 18 ‘Products & Services’ from Lacy et al.’s book ‘The Circular Economy Handbook’. This chapter discussed possibilities to improve products during all stages of the product life-cycle from design, to use, to use extension, to end of use. I liked the inclusion of ‘use extension’ as a separate phase in the product life-cycle, certainly something we should do much more explicit. The chapter also again stressed the need for good business models, as well as, developing a sound understanding of the product portfolio of a company.

Finally I read Bocken et al. (2016) ‘Product design and business model strategies for a circular economy’. I truly enjoyed reading the paper as it introduced a strong framework about how to design products for slowing down the resource loop and for closing the resource loop. I thought these two goals are quite helpful concepts to think along when designing products. To slow loops, the authors suggest to design for attachment and trust, reliability and durability, ease of maintenance and repair, upgradability and adaptability, standardization and compatibility, as well as, dis- and reassembly. This reminded me at the classical idea of ‘ilities’ from de Weck. To close resource loops the authors suggested to design for a technological cycle that allows to reuse technical materials and sub-products, as well as, for a biological cycle. I found this again a powerful guide for designing products.

Demystifying Building Performance Simulation ?

In the last years I was working with a lot of organizations, trying to explore how to better integrate advanced building performance simulation into the design and engineering processes for buildings. The struggle often is to figure out in what detail simulations are helpful during different stages of design. I have been working with companies that targeted very early decision making to support real estate developers all the way to companies that provide sophisticated consultancy in very detailed design phases. For me results are not conclusive and I really would like to do much more detailed and structured research. The farthest we are coming with our insights is in the area of supporting the renovation of buildings in two large EU funded research projects (P2Endure and BIM-Speed). Here we suggest that detailed building performance models of the existing buildings need to serve as a first step in the design process. These behavioral digital twin can then form a baseline to explore different building renovation options. A key within these efforts is to generate a baseline of the building behavior that normalized factors that are out of the control of the design, such as, weather or occupancy behavior, that cannot be statistically modeled to allow for fair comparision. From the technology development aspect at our firm Contecht we probably came furthest in setting up parametric modeling tools that allow for early simulations and host these tools through dedicated APIs that we developed in web-based design tools.

Scaling the renovation of buildings

Upgrading the European building stock is still painstaking slow. Only around 2% of the buildings are renovated yearly, while a large part of the building stock still originates from the 60s. So why is up-scaling so hard, when we have also very positive cases, such as for example, the Berlin housing corporations who renovated large parts of their building stock already a decade ago? In our EU funded research project P2Endure we found that one inherent problem is that renovation approaches are very dependent on the local typology of buildings and the social fabric of their inhabitants. Therefore, renovation approaches cannot be scaled on a large scale. The alternative are local entrepreneurs, architects and engineers that are willing to develop businesses around developing renovation solutions for specific districts, the type of buildings in this district, and can get in close contact with the locals.

More information about the P2Endure project.

Report: Technical and alliance plan for temporary local renovation factory at a district level​

Leadership in Engineering Meetings

Observing our students during the project assignments, we found that that leadership in integrated engineering meetings is emerging. At different times in the meetings different people take leadership roles according to the style of leadership that is required at the specific time of the meeting. Who is in lead heavily depends on the meeting dynamics and can hardly be predicted. For managing these meetings these findings mean that efforts to structure these meetings or to assign dedicated project managers to lead these meetings could be counter-effective. Moderators might still be important, but they need to step back and rather foster others to move into leadership roles, something that might come rather non-intuitive. We are working on a paper to publish these results, I will keep you posted!

The science of integrated engineering

Engineers invent, design, analyze, build, test and maintain complex physical systems, structures, and materials to solve some of societies most urgent problems, but also to improve the quality of life of individuals. Engineering is artifact-centered and concerned with realizing physical products of all shapes, sizes, and functions. At intengineering I am motivated by the quest to empower these engineers to cope with the ever increasing complexity of the systems they have to provide. I provide science and innovation based reports, thoughts, ideas, and interesting news – informal, but current – thought provoking and open.