Engineering is a profession whereby principles of nature are applied to build useful objects. A mechanical engineer designs a new engine, or a car suspension or a robot. A civil engineer designs a bridge or a building. A chemical engineer designs a distillation tower or a chemical process. An electrical engineer designs a computer or an integrated circuit.
For many reasons, not the least of which is the competitive marketplace, an engineer might not only be interested in a design which works at some sort of nominal level, but is the best design in some way. The process of determining the best design is called optimization. Thus we may wish to design the smallest heat exchanger that accomplishes the desired heat transfer, or we may wish to design the lowest-cost bridge for the site, or we may wish to maximize the load a robot can lift.
Often engineering optimization is done implicitly. Using a combination of judgment, experience, modeling, opinions of others, etc. the engineer makes design decisions which, he or she hopes, lead to an optimal design. Some engineers are very good at this. However, if there are many variables to be adjusted with several conflicting objectives and/or constraints, this type of experience-based optimization can fall short of identifying the optimum design. The interactions are too complex and the variables too numerous to intuitively determine the optimum design.
In this text we discuss a computer-based approach to design optimization. With this approach, we use the computer to search for the best design according to criteria that we specify. The computer’s enormous processing power allows us to evaluate many more design combinations than we could do manually. Further, we employ sophisticated algorithms that enable the computer to efficiently search for the optimum. Often we start the algorithms from the best design we have based on experience and intuition. We can then see if any improvement can be made.
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