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Uncertainty in Future and Flexible Designs

Flexibility implies the availability of right facilities at the right time. Its a challenge to utilize the best value in mega projects and to cope with the barriers or limitations that might arise with time in doing so. Flexibility in design holds significance for a variety of professionals and stakeholders associated with the project. These include but are not limited to designers, investors and lenders, managers, users, regulators and clients. There exist uncertainties in future both in terms of opportunities and limitations. Flexible systems open the gates to utilizing these uncertainties for the benefit of the project. Uncertainties in technological systems can only be exploited by utilizing flexibility in the initial design. In doing so , the stakeholders should try to predict the future and try to accommodate a range of possibilities in the design rather than going for fixed expectations.
Ponte de 25 Abril bridge, Lisbon, Portugal with the incorporated flexibility
to add rail lines (Image: Wikimedia)

The future is unpredictable no matter how precise our analysis becomes. It is thus desirable to design and develop our projects by incorporating flexibility to accommodate any changes needed to mitigate the risks in future or to make modifications to increase the project’s value. Explanations of the engineering design procedures are wide in the literature. The models are inflexible and signify step-wise procedures of an iterative nature. Cross [1] discusses the four main stages of the most basic design model model as specification, concept, schematic design and detail. It is of vital importance that members of the project team should collaborate over time to benefit from such a flexibility. System management also holds key importance in this regard. The system will not be able to profit from the incorporated flexibility unless the managers manage it smartly and make changes as necessary. The timing and prediction of requirements hold key importance in making a project successful in the long run.

The aspects related to the need of flexibility in designs and its significance will be briefly discussed in this article.

Uncertainty in Future

Technology is evolving at a very fast rate. State-of-the-art today may become obsolete in the near future. Numerous examples can be seen from near past in this aspect. The distribution of music on vinyl records shifted towards and then to CDs and DVDs to end up being distributed wirelessly across multiple platforms and through online music stores. The development in computer hardware and software can also be seen as one of the extremely rapidly changing products. The uncertainties associated with any project or product are often only translated as risks. This approach however addresses the negative aspect only. Uncertainties also create numerous opportunities and expansions can be made to make the project more lucrative. The changes in user requirements as well as industry standards can benefited from. Upside potential can be kept in mind to harvest the full potential of a project.

A very interesting case study is the Iridium fleet of communication satellites where sensitivity of technological projects to changes in context is illustrated. Motorola designed this satellite system to provide wireless telephone service all over the globe. This no doubt was a major technological breakthrough but it failed miserably financially. The reason being that the system was designed almost a decade prior to its actual execution. The cell phone technology had already become very popular when this technology was launched at a very high expected number users. This clearly shows the change in context and user requirements which were not incorporated in design which lead to its bankruptcy and eventual sale at about half percent of its initial $4 billion investment. Global Positioning System (GPS) is a technology initially developed by U.S military to track long range missiles. GPS chips are very popular these days and are available in cell phones, cars, aircrafts etc. The U.S military did not anticipate such a commercial success of this technology and did not incorporate a way to charge for the services. This clearly deprives them from the benefit they might have from the commercial users.

Thus technology affects the value of investments either directly or indirectly. Productivity is also related to the uncertainties in future and strongly affects the benefits. The future uncertainties can not be predicted accurately and the challenge is equally confronted by all the stakeholders.
Categories of Flexible Designs

As discussed in the previous sections, flexibility can be viewed from many perspectives. Flexible designs can be broadly classified in to following three categories,
Changes in size and shape

This kind of flexible design allows future expansion or contraction or the same in short terms. This can be seen in many modular systems e.g in formwork in construction industry, modular construction methods which allow for expansion or capability of a facility like an airport or a public venue to be partially closed. Space shuttles, solar dishes, antennas and other aerospace equipment also have the flexibility to change their size but this flexibility is mainly utilized during the launching phase. Flying cars also change in size to perform the required functions. Foldable guns, foldable bridges, origami inspired structures etc have the ability to change their shape.
Changes in function

Flexibility can also be seen as a change in intended function of a system. USB ports and other connection types which allow the users to connect state-of-the art equipment with their computers is a very common case. A sports stadium with a deployable roof and folding chairs can also be utilized off season for parties, concerts and other public events rather than being closed and wait for the revenue generating opportunities in the next sports season.

Protection against unwanted events and accidents

The systems are usually capable of dealing with the associated risks. Seat belts and air bags are among the flexibility added to deal with the risk of collision in cars. The stadiums with retractable roofs also feature such a kind of flexibility by allowing the events to be conducted under closed roof conditions in rainy or snowy weather.

[1] Cross, N. (2000). Engineering design methods: strategies for product design. Wiley.

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