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Graduate Seminar Oct. 25th, 2021: Scott Ferguson

The Impact of Unresolvable Uncertainties in Engineering Design


In this talk we will explore why unresolvable uncertainties should make us challenge accepted models of optimal design decision-making and how we optimize system architectures. Unresolvable uncertainties exist when historical data provides limited insight about future outcomes, defining future states is inherently difficult, and calculating the probabilities of each future state is effectively impossible. Our exploration of this topic will begin by discussing how unresolvable uncertainties prevent us from applying the calculus of probabilities needed for expected utility calculations. We will then explore why some economists and psychologists argue that conviction narratives provide an appropriate replacement frame for studying decision-making under unresolvable uncertainties. Towards a more complete picture of how engineering decisions are (and should) be made, initial efforts of integrating the well-known Decision-based Design framework and Conviction Narrative Theory will be described. We will also discuss how unresolvable uncertainties require reframing system architecture decisions. The incorporation of strategic inefficiencies, in the form of excess and margins, will be shown as a means for increasing a system’s total lifetime value by reducing sensitivity to requirement changes and truncating change propagation. Future research directions that combine narrative and excess in the context of designing our nation’s infrastructure systems will also be introduced.


Scott Ferguson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at NC State University. His research program answers questions about system architecture decisions in the face of uncertain and/or conflicting future requirements and how product variety should be managed by modeling market-driven environments. He is the recipient of the NSF CAREER award (2011), the NC State Outstanding Teacher Award (2012), the ASME Design Automation Young Investigator Award (2014), and the ASEE New Mechanical Engineering Educator Award (2015). He is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Mechanical Design, is a member of the ASME Design Engineering Division Executive Committee, and is the past chair of the ASME Design Automation Conference Executive Committee. He previously served on the AIAA MDO TC. Dr. Ferguson has received funding from NSF, NASA, DOE, the American Public Power Association, General Motors, Under Armour, and other private industry.