‘What-if’ Design as an Integrative Method in Product Design

‘What-if’ Design as an Integrative Method in Product Design

Author: Fred van Houten, and Eric Lutters

Abstract: In product development, many different aspects simultaneously influence the advancement of the process. Many specialists contribute to the specification of products, whilst in the meantime the consistency and mutual dependencies have to be preserved. Consequently, much effort is spent on mere routine tasks, which primarily distract members of the development team of their main tasks of creating the best solution for the design problem at hand. Many of these routine tasks can be translated into problems with a more or less tangible structure; often they are in fact an attempt to assess the consequences of a certain design decision on the rest of the product definition. Therefore, such questions can be formulated as: “what happens if. . . . .”. The question is subsequently translated into a need for evolution of the information content determining the product definition. Based on this need for information, immediate workflow management processes can be triggered. This results in a ‘train’ of design and engineering processes that are carried out, leading to a viable answer to the question. As the structure of a ‘what-if’ question is independent of the domain under consideration, the ‘what-if’ questions can relate to any aspect in the information content at any level of aggregation. Consequently ‘what-if’ questions can range from anything between ‘What if another machine tool is used’ to ‘What does this product look like if it is made from sheet metal’. Such a way of looking at products under development obviously strongly binds different domains and downstream processes under consideration, thus enabling a more integrated approach of the design process.

Two approaches can be applied simultaneously:

  • A generic top-down approach, focusing on the methods of answering structured ‘what-if’ questions, whilst disregarding any specific domain information, and avoiding any bias of solution routines
  • A bottom-up approach, contributing to understanding the application of a ‘what-if’ system and support systems in general.

‘what-if’ design can be described as the information-based and workflow-driven, structured approach to the chart the consequences of design decisions or changes in a design.


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