Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Operational Research and Design

One of the subject headings in the International Abstracts in O.R. (IAOR) is "Design". Over the years, there have been comparatively few abstracts which were classified under this heading. I wondered why. What sort of papers would be classified as "O.R. in Design"? One tends to think of design in connection with small (comparatively) items or matters, when one is not concerned with aesthetics. Things like household equipment, the layout of roads, small engineering items. A useful text is The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A Norman -- which doesn't mention O.R. but does discuss optimality quite frequently. But this aspect of design does not lead to academic papers. Manufacturers employ designers to make money, not to produce learned papers. Look at the jets in the rotor of a dishwasher; someone has designed them, found the best angles, positions and sizes, in order to efficiently and cheaply carry out a dishwashing cycle. Hard work -- hard O.R. work -- but not worth writing about. Sometimes the results of design are commercial secrets. When I was recently out of my postgraduate training, I went on a site visit and asked about a piece of equipment on the production line. Had the company patented it? No, because a patent would be visible to their rivals.

But sometimes one wishes that the results of design as the result of a modelling process could be made public. By doing that the benefits of one person's analysis could be usefully shared. I come across such an example regularly. What is the optimal separation between cycle racks? By the swimming pool, there are six racks, at 45cm apart. The outermost racks are therefore 225cm apart, and one can park seven bicycles in the space. Near the office, there are four racks, 100cm apart. Two bikes can be parked in each gap, so in 300cm there are eight bikes. Which is better?

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