The ideas in this website were developed by Dr Ashley Morris PhD during research at Cardiff University, Wales, UK between 2011 and 2017.  The research was conducted with the support of a number of Fortune 500/ FTSE 100 organisations and set out to investigate the information management challenges associated with engineering design and innovation (product change). The focus was the management of complex products such as aircraft, trains and ships.

Ashley started his career in the aerospace industry and experienced difficulties identifying spare parts that had been modified.  This experience eventually led to his research that focussed on the impact of engineering design changes (modifications) triggered by innovation.

Difficulties can occur supplying spares, when a newer alternative modified part is available that has been identified differently with a new part number.  If the details of the modified part (and part number) have not been communicated to maintenance engineers or no link has been created between the different parts in an information system then, a situation can arise where an engineer is told by the information system:

  • “Sorry, I don’t have the spare part you’ve asked for” – when it should say –
  • “Sorry, I don’t have the spare part you’ve asked for – but here’s an alternative.”

Sometimes the links are created but point to an alternative part that isn’t suitable.

Design Change

NASA Apollo 11 launch

Products change. Mobile phones can be on the market for as little as 12 months before they are replaced by new models. The designs of high-value, long-life transportation products such as aircraft, trains and ships also evolve, not only during a manufacturing run, but also through their operating lives.

The product development process generates significant volumes of information and this continues through life as designs are modified in the light of operating experience. The volume of information generated is growing and exacerbated by software updates, product support monitoring and “self-reporting”, that is enabled by increased network connectivity.

Product Fleets

The designs of complex products are typically unique.  Even within a fleet of new commercial aircraft produced at the same time, on the same production line, the aircraft will show slight design variations.  The variations might amount to around 5% difference across a fleet of ten aircraft.

These design variations that are evident shortly after manufacture gradually increase as modifications are implemented.  The modifications might arise due to software updates or from upgrades to new technology.  These modifications invariably gradually change the design of the aircraft over time.  Furthermore the modifications cannot be implemented at the same time on all aircraft and consequently, the designs of the products in a fleet can be seen to diverge as the fleet ages (Morris).  As a result of this phenomenon, the amount of time engineers spend searching for spares and maintenance information gradually increases.  This issue compounds existing information management challenges that are faced when managing fleets of complex products.

Systemic Properties

A system is considered to exist when a set of related concepts or objects that interact with each other.  There are four fundamental characteristics of systems (Checkland):

  1. The existence of emergent properties;
  2. Evidence of a hierarchy of subsystems;
  3. A need for communication and;
  4. A need for a system of control.

For example an aircraft’s ability to fly can be described as an “emergent property” because it is derived from all subsystems and individual system components operating in an integrated way.  No individual component is able to fly on its own.

The design divergence observed in product fleets, is an emergent, systemic property of the fleet. Design divergence cannot be seen when looking at a single product alone.  The phenomenon of design divergence illustrates the complex issues that must be considered when looking for ways to improve the management of innovation and engineering design changes for complex products.

Information Management

NASA Shuttle launch
Accurate design and maintenance information is required to ensure products are operated in a safe and efficient way. The accuracy of information needs to be sustained even when modifications are implemented and designs change.

There are many product development and support processes needed to support complex products and these include design, manufacture, test, procurement, finance, sales and maintenance. A huge variety of information systems (software applications) are needed to support these important processes.

To implement modifications to a complex product requires a significant amount of collaboration between the organisations involved. For an aircraft, this could include airlines, an outsourced aircraft maintenance business as well as manufacturers and other suppliers and subcontractors.

The collaboration requires communication of design information both within and between the organisations involved as well as information exchange between information systems.

For information to flow smoothly and efficiently the information systems used by organisations need to be integrated. As organisations continually strive to be more efficient, there is constant pressure to improve information management and communication.

Ten Principles

It is apparent that the ability of organisations to operate effectively is increasingly defined by their ability to manage information. There are a number of related dimensions that need to be considered: problem governance, process control, information relationships, standards, skills and the need for internal and external integration.

Ashley proposed Ten Principles to make progress.  Taken individually these 10 requirements are not new.  However, when viewed collectively, they represent a good basis upon which to assess the challenges involved.

They are intended to provide greater clarity to the nature and magnitude of the challenges to be met when managing product innovation and design changes in the context of complex high-value, long-life products.

  • Principle 1: The business impact of inaccurate product information should be better understood and monitored by business stakeholders and shareholders.
  • Principle 2: Product lifecycles should be managed proactively with a system of system perspective to ensure that opportunities for implementing changes are optimised regardless of the level in the product hierarchy at which they appear.
  • Principle 3: Product characteristics should be designed and monitored to ensure they comply with legislation, standards and customer requirements. Where appropriate, this will more closely integrate the design process with the role of any relevant design authority.
  • Principle 4: A single product change control process should be established that supports effective control of product changes and enables information about each change to be found easily. This will improve access to information needed to maintain design integrity and, where necessary, help meet the assurance requirements of any related design authority.
  • Principle 5: A single point of entry for new product information should be established across the business that enables consistent standards to be applied and duplication to be reduced.
  • Principle 6: All product records should include parent and child relationships, birth and death information, revision/modification history and the details of any constraints on product use (guidance on use or applicability).
  • Principle 7: A common system of terminology (taxonomy) for product information and processes should be established and incorporated into information systems, documentation, parts and product labels.
  • Principle 8: All staff should be familiar with the product information model used by their organisation or industry and with the purpose of the main systems of unique product identification in use and the allocation rules used for each. The importance of maintaining an accurate recording discipline, regardless of whether their activities relate to procurement, design, manufacture, sales, maintenance or support, should also be understood. Information allocation rules in the context of product change should be unambiguous.
  • Principle 9: Product information should be able to flow freely along the supply chain between and through organisations to match the physical flow of products and be available to users when required.
  • Principle 10: Product information should be presented in a dynamic way that enables users to see a product’s change history from the past, present and future.

Problem Solving

NASA Martian Lander
The issues described here relate to the potential benefits that could be achieved by improving the management of design information for complex high-value, long-life products. Over the last few decades, engineering organisations have changed the way they work to maximise the benefits to be achieved from outsourcing and the tremendous growth in the capabilities of information technology.

To make further progress information systems need to be more closely integrated to better support engineering processes. To “problem solve” in this context requires a frame of reference that helps individuals develop a mental structure of the relevant issues. The Ten Principles, combined with the design divergence phenomenon are intended to encourage further engagement with the complex issues that need to be addressed.


Ships in one of the world’s biggest and busiest short cuts – the Suez Canal.