System Thinking & Synthesis Mapping to Manage Product Material Selection Process

Flavia Papile & Barbara Del Curto, Politecnico di Milano Italy
Andrea Coccia, Faber S.p.A. Italy

Read the working paper ⇒

Material selection is one of the core tasks in industrial product design and development since materials are at the basis of manufactured artefacts. In a bottom-up perspective, materials affect the whole production system at several levels. In the very beginning of industrial production, materials were perceived as simple constituents of physical artefacts (Cornish, 1987) and material selection mainly focused on technical and functional properties. But, over time, an increasing number of characteristics and attributes have been taken into consideration as competing and influent elements on the product’s material decision, reinforcing the theories of materials as representatives of human socio-cultural and technical evolution over time (Ashby, 2011; Attfield, 1999).

In this perspective, the selection of the prime matter from which “artefacts are made of” gains a certain relevance in the product design process. Among years, not only the number of information considered in material selection grew up, but also materials themselves increased in number, growing a multitude of huge alternatives and tangling the material selection activity. In the last 20 years, material science and chemistry advancements lead to the discovery and synthesis of almost more than 160,000 different materials between which making a choice (Ashby, Shercliff, & Cebon, 2013), and this number is constantly increasing.

In this complex scenario, it became crucial for practitioners to collect and organize at best all information around materials to pursue an aware selection. Material selection methods and tools have been studied and realized either in engineering and design disciplines (Akin & Pedgley, 2014; Allwood, Ashby, Gutowski, & Worrell, 2011, 2013; Braungart, McDonough, & Bollinger, 2007; Jahan, Ismail, Sapuan, & Mustapha, 2010; Karana, Hekkert, & Kandachar, 2010; Morseletto, 2020; Ramalhete, Senos, & Aguiar, 2010; Wilkes & Miodownik, 2018; Wilkes et al., 2014).

The material repositories and selection tools may differ from their form and usability, but, thanks to the push of international organizations, we can nowadays register an incremental push toward the promotion of information easy access, openness and information sharing.

However, even if the information upon new materials are easily accessible and different methodologies, tools and platforms can efficiently support the material selection. Still, in the strict industrial routine, it is difficult to employ time in investigating possible new material solutions to upgrade the production line. By direct observations in the industrial domain, material selection is an activity still perceived as time costing and annoying activity, even if the practitioners recognize its importance for improving products performance, sustainability and manufacturability. This resistance to change in the industry is due to several factors, greater among others is the fear of failure (Berna-Martinez & Macia-Perez, 2012).

This gap between the theoretical and practical application of new materials influences the shift towards a more sustainable development significantly. The average gestation time between the research, development and introduction of new material into the industrial flow is estimated to be at least 20 years (Karana, Barati, Rognoli, & Laan, 2015; Karana, Pedgley, Rognoli, & Korsunsky, 2016; Markham, 2002), but the current context is demanding for faster improvement of innovative solutions towards new sustainable development.

To understand how to overcome this missing link between research and practice, a systemic overview of the current flux of information for material selection in a selected industrial environment is here presented.

Systemic thinking and Systems oriented design approaches are typically exploited to intervene in complex contexts (Battistoni, Nohra, & Barbero, 2019; Jones, 2014; Sevaldson, 2013), focusing on interrelations between system environment, system inner dimension and the network of relationships between all of the system constituents.

In this paper, according to the methodology of Workshop Process Staging (Jones, 2018), the material selection process has been analyzed at several levels. Starting from building a theoretical framework on methods and tools for material selection, collecting and organizing the information in usable modes and then have been gradually exposed to the company employees, to engage the stakeholders into the information flow system determination. Qualitative and quantitative methods of investigation have been employed to figure out the internal workflow and to list all the information required for managing material selection. Methodological triangulation of data allowed authors to set the basis for analyzing with the system’s stakeholders the material selection process in the company, compared with existing methodologies and tools. Through a workshop activity, a finer refinement of the internal material information flow finalized to material selection emerged thanks to the collaborative discussion of the company’s employees.

To share all the collected and represent the relationships between information, methods, tools and actors involved in the material selection process, a mapping activity has been settled to create a visual narrative of the whole work and at the same time defining the referring system boundaries (Jones & Bowes, 2017; Sevaldson, 2011).

The main output of this work is, so, a framework of the entire process of material selection in which information, tools, methodologies and actors are represented. The result, hence, is a synthesis map that provides a model for professionals to manage an aware introduction of new materials into the production. By realizing a synthesis map (Jones & Bowes, 2017), all the information needed from industrial employees to manage a proper material selection activity is hence visualized, also by considering different stages of the design process. The systemic view of the entire material selection process is then discussed to visualize and enlighten the main key-steps and iterations in which further improvements can be developed in the perspective of sustainable development (Vezzoli et al., 2014) and industrial/environmental interdependences.

Posted: Oct-2020

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