Forgotten Reasons

Grandma CookingYou may have heard the story about the woman who always sliced about one inch off the end of a large roast before placing it in the pan to be cooked. When asked why she did this, she did not know the reason. But she was sure that it was important, because her mother always did exactly the same thing.

Now curious, the woman called her mother to ask why it is important to cut off the end of a roast before cooking it. Her mother did not know the reason, but she was confident that it was important, because her mother always did exactly the same thing.

A phone call to the woman’s grandmother finally revealed the true reason why two subsequent generations of cooks always cut off the end of a roast before cooking it. The grandmother explained, “A long time ago, the only size of roast at the local store was too large to fit in my pan. So I had to cut a bit off the end in order to cook it. I haven’t had to do that in years!”

I’ll bet the entire family had a good laugh about this situation. Many years ago, there was a really good reason to cut off the end of the roast, but that reason didn’t exist anymore. Yet that step in the process was passed down to future generations, as though it were crucial to the success of the meal.

There are probably many situations in which current limitations give rise to a process that continues to be used long after those limitations are gone. Often the facts become blurred and the philosophical reasoning becomes stronger, so no one questions whether the process is valid.  A paradigm is created that is not easily broken.  Continue reading

A Brief History of Optimization

Light BulbsWhen Thomas Edison developed the first long-lasting, high-quality light bulb in 1879, his successful design was the result of a lengthy and laborious trial-and-error search for the best filament material, a process we now call the Edisonianapproach.

While Edison had no fundamental knowledge of how various materials resist electrical current, today’s engineers are often armed with greater technical knowledge and experience about their domain. This allows them to create initial designs based on intuition before testing the designs to failure. Design flaws observed during a test can then be incrementally improved through what we call the make-it-and-break-it method.

Advances in computing power and in computer-aided engineering (CAE) software now make it possible to create virtual prototypes of potential designs prior to building and testing expensive physical prototypes.  This reduces the cost and time required to perform each design iteration and provides greater understanding of how a design performs.  Continue reading