Exploring the design space of aircraft design.. a project in every town.

The British Aviation industry in the post war years was an incredible thing. Look at a map of the UK and look at a list of aviation projects. Most major towns had a significant player in the game; supersonic test aircraft were being developed in Hayes (my home town), transports in Heston down the road, fighters in Kingston and bombers in Weybridge. All of those could have been visited without travelling beyond the line of the modern M25, and without going east of Ealing. Go North, and just beyond the M25, and you find Hatfield and Radlett, home to Handley Page and De-Havilland. Something similar happened in Germany at the end of the second world war – Herman Goering said that more aircraft came out of the Messerschmitt drawing office than the factory.

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 20.50.24
The Fairey Delta 2: designed and built in Hayes..

So why so many operations, projects and aircraft? Defence spending is obviously a part of this picture. Wars, either hot or cold, drove the need for military aircraft and provided a budget to make them, but that doesn’t go all the way to explain why in one era there were many, relatively small operations, producing an array of types pushing the design envelope in different directions, whilst in a later one a huge spend on a very small number of types is the way in which these things are done. My thought process runs like this.. …obviously there are times in the development of a technology when exploring the design space of possible options is more feasible, or more rewarding, than at others. Maybe there a times when it just happens. Or is it that sometimes exploring the designspace is so rewarding that small teams can advance technologies in a way in which bigger organisations just don’t. Look at F1. Now it takes 800 people to get two cars onto the grid on a Sunday afternoon. In the 70’s and 80’s teams of around 20 people performed the same function. (And there is an interesting parallel here – 50’s test pilots and 70’s GP drivers had a somewhat lower life expectancy than their equivalents today.)

Surely however, advances is design methodologies, and the near universal presence of simulation should tip the balance. Surely we can have safety, and the freedom to explore the design envelope at a sensible cost. There must be ways to reap the benefits of exploring the full range of design possibilities in a technology without the need for multinational coalitions of corporations, or a 1000 people to put 2 cars together. And those examples seem to result in highly refined, but highly conventional solutions anyway.

Maybe what all this needs is disruption; disruptive technologies, disruptive events, and an environment that rewards performance increases. But above all it needs freedom. Disruption plus freedom. And effective ways to explore the designspace. All we need now is a way of making that happen within modern design and development projects.


Vorsprung Durch Technic.. Computer Aided Engineering and the design classic.

Advancement through technology… It’s beyond debate that continued engineering input has driven the performance of cars, aeroplanes, and almost every other manufactured device, to levels undreamed of in their early days.  And one of the driving forces behind this advance is computer modelling.  But for all the intensive efforts placed on visualisation and optimisation, is there a real modern design classic which bears comparison with those from history? Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 11.50.48 Think about the Porsche 917, the DH88 Comet and the Aquarama Speedboat.  Engineers who frequent twitter and CAD company press releases often talk about working to make the world a better place. But that Polyanna motivation was probably far, far, away from the minds of Messrs De-Havilland,  Mezger and Riva, when they outlined their individual classics on the drawing board.  Which is interesting, because the world is definitely a better place for having those vehicles in it.  And many, many, others.  But as you list the designs that have made the world a better place,  just by existing, you realise that they were nearly all designed in two dimensions using paper and pencil.  With forms often dictated by the prototyping process.  You don’t add many from the age of Computer Aided Engineering.

In my view the last truly attractive racing car was the Jordan 191.  And whilst there may have been companies carrying out CFD based design at the time, I’d like to bet that the 191 wasn’t designed that way.  Yes, I’d imagine there was a good deal of wind tunnel work, but not much external aero CFD.  And its a thing of beauty, in a way that a current F1 car just isn’t. Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 12.16.16

The form of bio-structures like plants, trees, and animals is often how we define attractiveness, and the driving force behind their shape is their function, and their response to the controlling physics.  Yet when the design of man made objects is directly driven by simulation of the same physics you get anodyne roadsters, eurofighter and the current crop of racing cars.

I’d like to say that I have some idea of what’s going on here.  But I really don’t. And I could even be totally wrong on this; nostalgia clouding my judgement.  But I suspect I’m right, and the modern design process is what is standing between us and real design classics. The question then, is how to break out of it.