Herrmann receives NSF grant for problem decomposition in facility design

Associate Professor Jeffrey Herrmann (ME/ISR) is the principal investigator of a two-year, $150K NSF Collaborative Research grant, “Observing, Analyzing, and Modeling Design-Team Problem-Decompositions in Facility Design." George Washington University Assistant Professor Erica Gralla is co-PI on the project.

Engineers work in teams to solve complex system design problems like determining the layout of a factory or medical facility. Many problems are too complex to be solved all at once, so engineers separate the problem into a set of subproblems and solve the smaller subproblems. Because this decomposition strategy affects the overall quality of the facility design, it is important that the teams use good decomposition strategies.

Herrmann will conduct fundamental research into how teams of engineers solve medical and factory facility design problems— an important class of system design problems—and how their strategies affect the performance of the facilities they design. The medical facilities being designed are points of dispensing medication to the public in a public health emergency.

The research team will identify the reasoning processes and problem decompositions used by design teams to solve facility design problems and generate hypotheses about which decompositions lead to better solutions. This in turn will enable future research on how to design better design processes.

In a series of field studies, the research team will observe teams of human designers as they decompose and solve facility design problems. Using qualitative data analysis, the researchers will identify their decomposition strategies. This involves empirical observation of professionals solving two distinct instances of facility design problems during relevant training courses: teams of public health professionals designing a mass antibiotic distribution facility and teams of professional engineers redesigning a manufacturing facility. The results will describe how teams of engineers decompose design problems in realistic facility design settings, enriching the knowledge base of design theory for facility design in particular and system design more generally.

The research will enable Herrmann to develop guidelines for designing points of dispensing and other types of facilities, enabling better points of dispensing, more productive factories, and economic benefits to manufacturing firms.

Published July 8, 2014