The engineering design process is a complex, iterative process through which individuals and teams solve ill-defined, multidisciplinary problems by integrating domain-based technical knowledge. Aerospace engineering integrates technical components from many different disciplines, such as aerodynamics, combustion, avionics, materials science, structural analysis, flight mechanics, optimization, and manufacturing. Thus, successful aerospace engineering design requires multidisciplinary communication and cooperation among all stakeholders to balance technical developments within disciplines with design integration across disciplines. However, novice engineers are often unable to decompose, document, and exchange these decisions, and the constraints and trade-offs leading to the decisions, to others also involved in the design process.
The typical aerospace engineering degree program culminates with the completion of a capstone design course which satisfies the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology’s (ABET) student outcome for having an ability to design a system to meet desired needs within realistic constraints. Capstone design also typically incorporates a collaborative aspect, addressing the ABET student outcome for having an ability to function on a multidisciplinary team. Often, assignments are designed with the expectation that students are capable of communicating knowledge underlying design decisions to team members and course instructors. However, students may still be developing collaboration and communication skills throughout capstone design.
This paper discusses the role of managing and exchanging knowledge underlying aerospace engineering design decisions. As a simplified example, a designer may include assumptions about the aircraft’s operating environment (e.g. typical operations in marine climate) that lead to selecting a particular engine (e.g. an engine that is resistant to corrosion caused by marine conditions). The environmental assumptions incorporated by the designer would be considered knowledge underlying their design decisions. These assumptions may subsequently impact other designers’ decision-making processes, such as the structural engineer’s selection of a corrosion-resistant material. However, if the original designer does not effectively manage and exchange their environmental assumption, others also interacting in the design environment may not incorporate that information in their decision-making process. While expert designers may be aware of the critical knowledge underlying design decisions and utilize established methods for exchanging information, novice designers may not be aware of their internal knowledge structures or use effective methods for organizing and exchanging that knowledge.
This paper uses a “scholarship of integration” approach to make connections across various strands of work related to coordinating knowledge underlying design decisions in design teams. A scholarship of integration research approach synthesizes information (i.e. literature findings) across disciplines and places major themes into the larger context of the design process. In performing this type of critical analysis of prior research, larger intellectual patterns can be identified and interpreted.