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Original Article Proceedings of Virtual Concept 2006

Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, November 26th – December 1st, 2006

Functionally efficient conceptual design and innovation tools

Martin E. Baltazar-Lopez, Jorge D. Flores-Porras, Eric F. Zenteno-Cardoso, Marco A. Miranda Ramírez

Centro Nacional de Investigación y Desarrollo Tecnológico, CENIDET

Prol. Palmira Esq. Apatzingan, Cuernavaca, Mor. 62240, Mexico.
Phone/Fax 52 777 312 76 13
E-mail : {baltazar, dflores05m,eric05m,mamr05m}@cenidet.edu.mx

Abstract: A design methodology founded on the research - However, by using a specific methodology, some times this
work done at the Institute for Innovation and Design in idea of getting industrial expertise and industrial problems
Engineering, has been applied to enhance the ability to design can be substituted for a solution of an everyday problem,
and innovate of neophyte engineers at National Research and based on the fact that not all the engineering problems come
Technological Development Centre (CENIDET) in Mexico. from industry, being this more accessible for students,
This methodology is based on the cognitive skills of nevertheless not less technically-challenging projects, and
abstraction, critical parameter identification, and questioning in making these solutions of a real need a good starting point of
order to obtain a functionally efficient conceptual design. their engineering design practice, some times those solutions
Besides of teaching the design process to novice designers, the have risen interest from industrial partners.
methodology inspires in them a design philosophy which
enables them to perform engineering effectively and
innovatively in any area of specialty. Some examples of this 2- The Methodology
design philosophy are presented.
Research evidence has shown that engineering design is a
Key words: Design methodology, Functional structure, process that can be developed and imparted to engineers
abstraction, Innovation. [PB1,UE1,U1,F1,S1]. Also other research studies shows that
certain differences exist between experienced and novice
designers [G1,LS1]. Experienced designers come up with
1- Introduction innovative solutions quickly in comparison to novice
designers because they first identify and then attack core
When teaching engineering, the process of learning through
issues of a problem while neophyte engineers try to look at
real problems is a common practice. In some cases, in
existing-solution schemes or model dependent solutions
undergraduate curricula it is necessary to have exposure to
causing fixation of thinking and thus blocking the innovative
industrial problems particularly on the last semesters of the
course of study in which industrial partners provide some of
their problems and industrial exposure first to the faculty and
then to students as a form of knowledge and expertise. Faculty
In CENIDET we try to use those research findings to
work with students to provide the information back to the
increase our understanding of the design process as well as
industrial partners as a form of Technical expertise and design
effective means for teaching that process. The conceptual
specific problems and thus as a solutions in which students are
design methodology used is based on the techniques taught at
exposed to the design process, they can get real results and
Texas A&M University’s former Institute for Innovation and
become potential employees for industrial partners.
Design in Engineering (IIDE) [B1,KB1] which provided to
industry continuing education customized workshops on
- In reality, this approaching of Industry and schools, as partners design innovation.
to solve problems, in Mexican institutions is very incipient.

- In the mechanical engineering department of CENIDET, one The core of this approach is a design philosophy based on
of the goals is to exposure the students to real engineering Abstraction, Critical Parameter Identification, and
practice. This is not always an easy task. In part because there Questioning.
is a lack of confidence from possible industrial partners
because there is not such culture of University-Industry The aims of the methodology are:
partnership in Mexico. • To provide an understanding of the creative
processes whereby the effect of a product can be

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Figure 1: Abstraction Process.

• To provide an understanding of innovation not only in The core of the methodology is formed by three skills: the
an industrial context but in every day life ability to think on an abstract level; the ability to identify
• To introduce a number of innovation techniques, critical parameters; and the ability to question.
particularly based on abstraction and questioning
• To introduce a number of advanced design techniques
to enable the innovation process to be executed and 2.1- Abstract level thinking
managed . Novice design engineers try to get related solutions while
experienced designers get innovative solutions based on
Once the students are familiar with the methodology, they can abstract thinking on analyzing the core issue of a problem.
perform design effectively and innovatively in any area of
Abstraction is the process by which a perceived need is
progressively transformed from a colloquially expressed

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statement into a functionally precise definition, using In general, an engineering design process starts with the
technically fundamental terms. This has been identified as one identification of a need. It then assists a designer to generate
of the key skills required for a designer. solutions to that need, to develop and implement systems or
components, and concludes with satisfactory qualification
The importance of abstraction in increasing the insight that the and testing of a prototype. This whole process involves
designer has into the problem and simultaneously expanding organizing and managing resources and people. Critical
the solution space that can be explored. The abstraction process factors such as cost, safety, reliability, aesthetics, ethics, and
to achieve the required level of abstraction for a given problem social impact are also considered during the design process.
statement is summarized in Figure 1.
A need statement describes the design task and it is
Answering “yes” to all of the questions in Figure 1, can be composed of two parts: a) the main design function and b)
used to evaluate whether abstraction has been achieved to the the main design constraint.
required degree. The ultimate goal of abstraction is to
simultaneously increase the insight into the problem and 2.3- Critical Parameter identification
expand the solution domain, to obtain innovative and non-
traditional solutions. The Critical Parameter Identification is the next systematic
process by which a designer identifies the important issues in
In the process of abstraction a need statement evolves from a a recognized need. Those issues can be physical, natural,
colloquially expressed phrase to a technically precise sentence chemical, or mathematical concepts that are significant to the
in a more abstract form. The solution-specific details are need. The Critical Parameter Identification and Abstraction
eliminated and the terms qualitative. Through abstraction, the processes go parallel, along with questioning. Again there is
final need statement should be simultaneously technically a difference on how experienced designers attack a problem
precise, solution independent, general but not vague, and and quickly reach and address the core issue in the problem,
allows a greater variety of possible solutions at the conceptual in comparison to neophyte design engineers. Thus it could
stage. be said that the rapid and skillful identification of critical
parameters is a characteristic of a good design engineer.
2.2 Need Statement
Karuppoor, et al [KB1] show the process of abstraction and
how the need statement goes from a colloquial sentence to a
Based on the definition of the word Design: “the process of more precise one an also the associated critical parameter
creating a device or system to satisfy a need” thus the most evolves along with it at each stage of abstraction.
important and one of the most critical parts in the design
process is to define a need statement. The need statement Figure 2 shows the actions involved in identifying the critical
should reflect the problem in question, and the implicit parameters for the design. Critical parameters are limiting
constraints of the probable solution. conditions and gradients that address the change or a rate of

Figure 2: Actions involved in Critical Parameter Identification

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change of a variable. A critical parameter is often By Questioning, the designer’s thoughts are directed into
determined by those limiting conditions at interfaces new solution spaces and thus avoid fixation on existing
between the functional requirements of the design and the solutions enabling the designer to be innovative and to
environment. Thus for an engineer it is not an easy task to consider issues that have not been thought of before and and
minimize these rates of change and at the same time considering problems in new and different perspectives.
meeting the specified need.
3-Functional Analysis
At this point of the design process it is necessary to have all
Along with abstraction and critical parameter the design specifications written and organized. This is done
identification, questioning skills are required in a good by the functional analysis. The functional analysis is carried
design. For instance, questioning the constraint helps out by using a chart known as functional structure.
establish whether this is a real or a perceived constraint, or
one that is being artificially imposed. 3.1-Functional Structure

Also by questioning it is possible to recognize the true Once a problem is declared into the need statement, several
need and from there innovative solutions that would not ideas come up into place. A common practice is to write
otherwise have been considered. This illustrates how the down all those ideas however most of the times, those are not
process of questioning is a subtle, yet powerful tool, in organized in a consistent way.
helping define the true need and opening up the solution
space for further exploration. The functional structure is a graphic way to organize and
classify ideas into functions, restrictions, constraints,
The effective designer, by questioning needs and
alternatives and concepts.
assumptions, makes a conscious effort to be innovative and
to not get fixated on certain ideas. Figure 3 shows the various
As its name implies the functional structure must clearly
questions that should be asked in relation to the need. These
specify the main function and also sub-functions that the
consist of the five “W” s (Why? What? …) and the “H”
device being designed must perform. Also all possible
(How?) along with the opposite corresponding negative
constraints that will limit our solution space. The
questions. The role of a designer at this stage is the one of a
functions are organized in such hierarchical way that the
true researcher trying to find technically reasonable
main function and main constraint are at the first level
explanations by gathering of information and can use these
after the need statement, which in turn would be the header
questions to fully explore the task and gain insight into the
of the chart. Going down to next level are the sub-
true need. The question of How? encompasses all the other
functions and secondary constraints, at the lower levels are
questions and is, in a sense, the means through which the
the alternatives and finally the concepts. When forming
answers to the W’s can be implemented.
this functional structure a questioning process is carried

Why Why not?


What? What not?

How? TRUE How

When When not?

Who Who not?

Where Where

Figure 3: Questioning process to get the “true” need.

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Figure 4: Function Structure

4-Conceptual Design • Identify the critical design issues early.

The design itself demands creativity making the engineers • Start early in the design process.
and designers in inventors. Also the design is an iterative • Get “divorced” often.
process making necessary to look upon alternatives when
striving for an optimal solution design. The design requires • Consider design alternatives at each stage
attention to the details. In many cases the details make the
• Consider fundamental principles.
difference between success and failure.
How it is defined a design need is reflected in the • Continually reexamine assumptions.
solutions. A good need definition allows the conception of
Also some activities are implicit in the conceptual design
innovative solutions at the functional structure.
Design can be viewed as an iterative movement between • Idea Generation
the two knowledge domains achieved through the use of o Identify ideas.
the two thinking modes, form concept space to
configuration space and vice versa. The conceptual space • Concept Development
implies a generalization or abstraction of specific o Develop three conceptually different and
information to fundamental concepts which in turn fosters viable solutions.
divergent thinking. On the other side, a particularization or
configuration of abstract principles or concepts fosters • Concept Evaluation
convergent thinking. This it is necessary to count of a large o Evaluate the solutions against the need.
sample of functional alternatives which eventually will
evolve into conceptually different solutions. o Create a single design incorporating
good features.
At the conceptual design it is necessary to have at least
three conceptually different alternatives. Understanding as 5-Case Study
different those solutions which have fundamentally
different principles or physical effects Handicapped people in Mexico who has the necessity to
Also the keys for a good conceptual design can be use wheelchairs for mobility find out in many occasions
summarized as follows: the problem to bridge the gap over steps, curbs, and raised
landings that are not accessible or do not count on an

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appropriate ramp. Thus a necessity arises to design a • Where is it needed? In any place with unevenness
device to be able to transport a non-electrical wheelchair (standard height of step, curb or sidewalk) that
from the inferior level to the step or curb and vice versa. does not count on an access ramp
• When it is needed? At the moment that the
5.1-Need: people mentioned above require to bridge the gap
over a step or curb.
It is required of a device that allows people who use • How is it needed? It is required a relatively light
wheelchairs to accede with autonomy to steps or device, cheap and functional.
curbs that do not count on access ramp. • Is really needed? Yes, because not always there
are access ramps to the steps, curbs or sidewalks
or some person who can help.
• It must be a relatively simple mechanism 5.4-Main function:
• It has to be of low cost (in comparison to the price
of the wheelchair) To raise wheelchair to a step, curb or sidewalk that is
• That can be operated easily by the handicapped not accessible.
• Adaptable to any non-electrical wheelchair. 5.5-Main restriction: With autonomy

5.3-Need Analysis, Important questions: 5.6-True need: To raise a wheelchair, with

autonomy to a step, curb or sidewalk that is not
• What is needed? It is required a device that allows accessible.
the handicapped people who use wheelchairs to
accede to steps or curbs that do not count on an 5.7-Functional Structure
appropriate ramp and without help from a third
person. Based on the generic fuction structure of figure 4 and
• Why it is needed? Because handicapped people the concepts in relationship to the functional analysis,
cannot accede with autonomy to steps and curbs two functional structures were developed for this case.
without an appropriate ramp.
• Who needs it? Handicapped or Injured people
who use wheelchairs that they require of
autonomy for mobility.

To raise a wheelchair, with autonomy to a step, curb

or sidewalk that is not accessible

Allows horizontal Vertical displacements of Maintain user’s

mobility. the wheelchair autonomy

Advance over flat floors Raise a non Allowing mobility to user

without raised landings accessible step, without help of another
curb or sidewalk person

Using a Using a manual

motorized device device

Figure 5: Initial Functional Structure

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To raise/lower a wheelchair, with autonomy to a step,

curb or sidewalk that is not accessible.

Allows displacement Maintain user’s autonomy


Allows horizontal Vertical displacements of Allowing mobility to user

displacement for normal the wheelchair without help of another
mobility conditions person

Raise/lower a non
accessible step,
Advance over flat floors curb or sidewalk
without raised landings

Using a Using a manual

motorized device device

Hydraulic Electric Movable Telescopic Manual

System System arms Ramp Lift

Figure 6: Modified Functional Structure

5.6-Critical Parameter Identification After analyzing all the involved aspects in functions and
After a rain storming some Critical parameters were constrains to obtain a suitable solution, the functional
identified: structure evolves (and could be possible that the need
• Height difference in steps, curbs or sidewalks statement changes in the process) into a modified or
(150 to 200mm aprox) second functional structure. From the functional structure
several conceptual alternatives emerged:
• Maximum force to be exerted to the
• Telescopic Ramp
• Dimensions
• Hydraulic system
• Weight
• Movable arms
• Cost
• Electric system
• Manual lift
With the need statement and the information from critical
parameters a initial functional structure is developed. As In table I are shown all the considered conceptual
mentioned before a systematic way of organize ideas and alternatives evaluated against a datum or reference. After a
relate them to the solution as functions, constraints or matrix evaluation of the critical parameters of each of
alternative concepts is necessary. A graphic way of doing those concepts it was determined that the hydraulic
that is a organization chart known as Functional Structure mechanism presented more advantages over the rest of the
where the process of questioning is carried out at the same alternatives, and also the movable arms mechanism had
time that the functions, sub functions and constraints are several advantages over the ramp however when
arranged in a hierarchical levels from top to bottom. At the considering manufacturing costs, these two options were
lower level of the functional structure there should be at surpassed by the telescopic ramp mechanism. In the
least three conceptually different design alternatives, to be process the conceptual design activities of Fig. 7 were
evaluated at next design stage. The final functional carried out.
structure is obtained after an iterative process and
evolution of the need statement.

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Figure 7: Layout of the Conceptual Design Activities

Critical Telescopic Hydraulic Movible Electric Manual

Parameter Ramp System arms System lift
Cost - - - -

Size + I - +

Weight - I - I

Manoeuvrability + + + +

Strength + I - I

Life cycle DATUM I - - I

+ - - +
Maintenance - - - -

Manufacture - - - -

Total (+) 4 1 1 3

Total (-) 4 5 8 3

Table I. Concept Matrix Evaluation

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Figure 8: Model of wheel and the telescopic mechanism

Based on these results, and applying de designer criteria, triple slider mechanism with a folding end ramp, deployed
the telescopic ramp was chosen to be developed as a in place with a single degree of freedom.
The ramp mechanism implemented on a wheelchair is
5.7-Telescopic Ramp Mechanism shown in Figure 9.
Because the simplicity of the mechanism’s linkage, the
A wood model, Fig. 8, was constructed to illustrate the manufacturing cost is low, making it affordable for the
movements involved in the mechanism. It consists of a majority of users of this kind of wheelchairs.

Figure 9: Ramp Mechanism implemented on the wheelchair

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6- Conclusions [G1] Glegg, G.L.,The Design of Design, Cambridge

The philosophy from the Texas A&M University’s former University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1969.
Institute for Innovation and Design in Engineering (IIDE) [KB1] Karuppoor, S. S., Burger C. P. and Chona R., “A
was used in a design methodology based on abstraction Way of Doing Engineering Design,” Proceedings of the
critical parameter identification, and questioning to train 2001 ASEE Annual Conference, Albuquerque, NM, 2001.
neophyte engineers in CENIDET Mexico, allowing them http://www.asee.org/acPapers/01128_2001.PDF.
to get the basic skills necessary to get quick innovative
solutions; at the same time having experience in solving [LS1] Leong, A. and Smith, R. P., “An Observational
real engineering problems related to true needs which Study of Design Team Process: A Comparison of Student
otherwise do not have because of lack to exposure to and Professional Engineers,” Proceedings of the 1997
industrial problems. It was shown also that the ASME design Engineering Technical Conference,
methodology can be used not only at industry but in every Sacramento, CA, 1997.
day needs, which after the process could be adopted by [PB1] Pahl, G. and Beitz, W., Engineering Design: A
industry. Systematic Approach, Springer Verlag, Berlin, 1996.
[S1] Suh, N. P., The Principles of Design, Oxford
7- References
University Press, New York., 1990.
[U1] Ullman, D. G., The Mechanical Design Process,
[B1] Burger C. P., “Excellence in Product Development McGraw-Hill, New York., 2002.
through Innovative Engineering Design,” Engineering
[UE1]Ulrich, K. T. and Eppinger, S. D., Product Design
Productivity & Valve Technology, Valve Manufacturers
and Development, McGraw-Hill, New York,1995.
Association of America, Washington, DC, pp. 1-14, 1995.
[F1] French, M. J., Conceptual Design for Engineers, The
Design Council, London,1985.

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