Bloebaum designs her way to awards for Iowa State

Elizabeth Polsdofer

The art of designing perfection is not just an age old riddle to one ISU professor. Christina Bloebaum, professor of aerospace engineering, is the recipient of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Multidisciplinary Design Optimization Award for 2012.

Multidisciplinary design optimization is designing large scale systems to work under the best possible conditions possible. It requires considering large amounts of variables where the solution to what would be the best design is a complex problem.

“My background is in multidisciplinary design optimization, and that really pertains to larger scale systems,” Bloebaum said. “When I say larger scales, I’m talking about potentially thousands of people interacting in the design process, possibly multiple organizations geographically dispersed. You have people coordinating across countries, time zones, and different kinds of incentive structures and organizational boundaries, so it makes it a little challenging.”

Design optimization is a new way of designing complex systems which has been around for only about 30 years. Before it came along, having a design alone did not guarantee an optimal solution.

“The old way to design complex systems is to have an expert who runs the team and they communicate with all the folks who do all the specialities,” said Richard Wlezien, department chairman and professor of aerospace engineering. “It requires someone with a lot of experience and a lot of talent and there’s no reason to believe that they’re going to get the best solution, they will get a solution, and for an aircraft to be able to get off the ground, all these things have to be able to work together.”

What exactly is multidisciplinary design optimization? It is being able to understand the ways different parts of a complex system interact when one area is affected.

“When you have many inputs and many variables how do you optimize a system by turning all these knobs simultaneously?” Wlezien said. “[Multidisciplinary design optimization] is viewed as a way to simultaneously optimize all these things so you can optimize the design of an aircraft by optimizing each of the these pieces.”

When applied to aerospace engineering, design optimization is necessary since the optimization of one piece may affect another unrelated piece that is part of the larger system.

“I like to use structures and controls, for instance, as an example or structures and aerodynamics, either one, with an airplane. If you make the wing longer, it’s going to make [the airplane] heavier, but it’s going to increase the lift, so good thing for aerodynamics, bad thing for structure. Those kinds of interactions exist throughout the entire thing,” Bloebaum said. “You never know when you make a change in one discipline or one component what kind of effect that’s going to have someplace very far off in the system. It becomes a very challenging problem trying to understand those interfaces that exist.”

Now in addition to focusing the types of systems that humans can control, like airplanes, Bloebaum is doing research on things that cannot be controlled by an engineer.

“The other thing that has gone beyond [design optimization] is introducing the human element. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, I would say the move was toward trying to get people out of it and let computers do all of the work, but that’s not possible, because it’s the people who are making decisions and the people who are involved in trading information back and forth. So to pretend they don’t exist is shooting yourself in the foot,” Bloebaum said.

In addition to Bloebaum’s recognition for her accomplishments working with design optimization, Wlezien said the entire ISU community will benefit from the addition of Bloebaum to the aerospace engineering department. Bloebaum started at Iowa State this fall.

“Bloebaum has been an expert in that field and has been recognized for her expertise,” Wlezien said. “It’s quite exciting for the department, it’s quite exciting for the university.”