Robust Design and the Downside of Efficiency

I just read the article The Downside of Efficiency by . I realized that there is an analogy between what is discussed in that article and changes in the way we design products.

It was formerly the case that engineers were taught to design for maximum performance. The problem was that this often resulted in products that only achieved that performance under optimum conditions; in real life the products were finicky, had high failure rates, and seldom lived up to their potential.

Today the dominant paradigm is to design products to be “insensitive to variation”. Some performance may be sacrificed, but the performance that  is achieved is maintained under all expected conditions, through end-of-life, etc. The product is robust and customers end up experiencing better performance than the “optimized” design.

This learning has not generally carried over into our production systems. “Performance” is analogous to “efficiency”. As we strive for greater and greater efficiency, our production systems become more and more “sensitive to variation”. Overly efficient supply chains are susceptible to a single dock-worker strike, mono-culture crops are susceptible to new diseases. GMO crops produce infertile seeds by design — what happens if there is a disruption in Monsanto’s production system?

As a society we need to learn the lessons designers learned long ago – design for robustness, not efficiency.

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About dougstinson

Doug Stinson enjoys pondering unexpected connections and sharing his discoveries. He is also a physicist, a photographer, a new product realization executive, and a student of history, the environment and religion.
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