Tuesday, January 31, 2012

SDM Alum and Company Featured on Launch.org

Promethean Power, co-founded by SDM alumnus Sorin Grama and Sam White, is now featured on Launch.org's website at http://www.launch.org/forum/10/energy/innovators/32/promethean-power-systems/profile.

LAUNCH was founded by NASA, USAID, the Department of State, and NIKE, who joined together to form the global initiative in an effort to identify, showcase, and support innovative approaches to sustainability challenges.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Illustrating the Benefits of Systems Thinking and Early Stage Product Design

By Eric Smalley

Maria Yang
Much of the design and development of products focuses on engineering. But Assistant Professor Maria Yang believes that to get the most out of the product design process, it pays to linger over pencil and paper right at the beginning.

Research led by Yang shows that the design sketches generated during the earliest part of the design cycle can have a big impact on outcome. Yang, who teaches courses in MIT's System Design and Management (SDM) program, is on the faculty of both the Mechanical Engineering Department and the Engineering Systems Division. She also leads the Ideation Lab, which studies the processes and behaviors involved in early phases of product development.

The preliminary stage of design is challenging to study because of its ambiguous nature. Design concepts can change rapidly, and this evolution can be difficult to capture and assess. Yang studies these so-called "informal" representations, which can take the form of sketches, models, prototypes, or even words. She said that for many engineers and designers, the act of sketching itself is way of thinking.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a designer or engineer who doesn't sketch out ideas when they are trying to think about new concepts," said Yang. "But there is little understanding of how such representations subsequently impact a design outcome."

Research suggests that the early stage decisions designers make have a significant impact on the cost and performance of the final product, said Yang. The Ideation Lab examines how design teams generate concepts, decide what to design, and, most importantly, how representations of these designs drive the early design process. They study when in the design cycle designers construct informal representations, what they represent, and the quantity and quality of these "sketches."

Research indicates that higher sketch quantity early in the design process correlates with good design outcomes, while sketching later correlates negatively. The simplicity of a prototype also correlates positively; complexity tends to lead to more negative outcomes.

With this in mind, it's clear that the conceptual phase of the design process often gets short shrift. "People have a tendency to jump to a design quickly," she said. "There's incredible pressure—because of deadlines, cost, competitiveness—to select a 'final' concept as soon as possible. However, you can't skip thorough the early exploration phase of design concepts, whether through visualization or other low-overhead modeling."

Taking a holistic view of the design process shows the benefit of thorough exploration in the conceptual phase. "Often when we think of engineering, we think in terms of creating and applying technology," said Yang. "Systems thinking means you consider broader issues, in addition to the technology—preferably at the very beginning of design. These questions must be answered: 'Who will use this product? How will it be used? What's the business case? How can it be produced?' These concepts should subsequently be rendered visually, through a drawing or model that a design team can refer to as a representation of their overall vision."

Sergey Naumov, SDM '11, Co-Leads MIT's Career Fair

By Cody Romano

Sergey Naumov
Sergey Naumov, SDM '11, was one of just two graduate students chosen to lead MIT's 2011 Career Fair. Volunteering as the event's employer relations director, he arranged for 300 organizations—including McKinsey, Exxon Mobil, Pixar, and the CIA—to visit the MIT campus during a week in late September—all while fulfilling his responsibilities as a father and a full-time System Design and Management (SDM) Fellow.

To build relationships with employers, Naumov spent eight months emailing, calling, and meeting face to face with company representatives. At the same time, he contributed to the career fair's website and participated in weekly planning sessions with a team of other students.

"Sergey is a natural leader who's always smiling and has a way of making people feel comfortable," said SDM Director of Career Development Helen Trimble, who identified Naumov as a candidate for the leadership role.

In addition to co-leading the MIT Career Fair team, Naumov personally addressed some of the concerns expressed by students and employers. For company representatives who wanted to size up attendance, he compiled a report of demographics from past years. For students worried about vying for an employer's attention, Naumov designed an online networking system that allowed job-seekers to make an impression without waiting in line.

He also worked to meet the specific needs of SDM job-seekers, who face a different challenge than most undergraduate students: as experienced technical professionals, most are seeking mid- to upper-level positions, while employers at career fairs typically recruit for entry-level jobs. Aware of this dynamic, Naumov lobbied for SDM students to moderate company panels. This allowed 18 students to network one on one with executives from such industries as aerospace and business consulting.

Naumov attributes the success of the career fair to effective teamwork and systems thinking. By collaborating regularly with others in his cohort via Skype and social media, he enhanced his leadership and communication skills and used them to build important relationships for MIT and SDM. Meanwhile, the holistic mindset that Naumov developed in classes like Systems Architecture allowed him to prioritize tasks more easily and strategically.

Although these lessons benefited Naumov, his duties as a full-time student, a researcher, and a dad made managing the project an even greater challenge. In addition to taking 14 courses since the spring, Naumov has worked as a research assistant for MIT's Chrysler Leaders for Manufacturing Professor Charles Fine, focusing on technological competition and developing computer models.

Originally from Moscow, Naumov and his daughter moved to Lexington, MA, several years ago. Before joining SDM, he was head of information technology for Akku-Vertrieb Ltd., a Russia-based battery manufacturer. After he graduates, he plans to work as an information technology project manager for a firm such as Google or Microsoft, where he will apply lessons learned from SDM and from planning the MIT Career Fair.

"My experience planning this event reinforced the necessity of carefully managing large projects and the importance of what I learned in SDM about project management, leadership, and teamwork," explained Naumov. "If the time is short and the project is really large, the success of your team depends on strong knowledge in all of these areas."