Ph.D. Dissertation Defense by Marco Gero Fernández
Monday, November 18, 2005

(Dr.Farrokh Mistree, Co-Chair (ME), Dr. Janet K. Allen, Co-Chair (ME))

"A Framework for Agile Collaboration in Engineering"


Often, design problems are strongly coupled and their concurrent resolution by interacting (though decentralized) stakeholders is required. The ensuing interactions are characterized predominantly by degree of interdependence and level of cooperation. Since tradeoffs, made within and among sub-systems, inherently contribute to system level performance, bridging the associated gaps is crucial. With this in mind, effective collaboration, centered on continued communication, concise coordination, and non-biased achievement of system level objectives, is becoming increasingly important.

Thus far, research in distributed and decentralized decision-making has focused primarily on conflict resolution. Game theoretic protocols and negotiation tactics have been used extensively as a means of making the required tradeoffs, often in a manner that emphasizes the maximization of stakeholder payoff over system level performance. More importantly, virtually all of the currently instantiated mechanisms are based upon the a priori assumption of the existence of solutions that are acceptable to all interacting parties. No explicit consideration has been given thus far to ensuring the convergence of stakeholder design activities leading up to the coupled decision and the associated determination of values for uncoupled and coupled design parameters. Consequently, unnecessary and costly iteration is almost certain to result from mismatched and potentially irreconcilable objectives.

In this dissertation, an alternative coordination mechanism, centered on sharing key pieces of information throughout the process of determining a solution to a coupled system is presented. Specifically, the focus is on (1) establishing and assessing collaborative design spaces, (2) identifying and exploring regions of acceptable performance, and (3) preserving stakeholder dominion over design sub-system resolution throughout the duration of a given design process. The fundamental goal is to establish a consistent framework for goal-oriented collaboration that more accurately represents the mechanics underlying product development on one hand and supports interacting stakeholders in achieving their respective objectives in light of system level priorities on the other. This aim is accomplished via improved utilization of shared resources and avoidance of unnecessary reductions in design freedom.

Comparative performance of the method is established with respect to more traditional game theoretic means of conflict resolution. Three distinct applications of increasing complexity are considered: (1) a transparent tutorial example, involving the resolution of a tradeoff with respect to a system of non-linear equations, (2) a collaborative pressure vessel design example, involving first two and then three designers, and (3) a parametric design example of a structural heat exchanger, requiring reliance on surrogate models for representation of stakeholder considerations.

Implications of this research include improved resource management and design space exploration, augmented awareness of system level implications emanating from sub-system decisions, and increased modularity of decentralized design-processes. Stakeholder synergy in design processes is enhanced via stakeholder focalization, based on the systematic communication of decision-critical information content.