China is a civilized country that has a long history of around 5000 yr. Before the 15th century, China was considered to be in a leading position in science and technology in the world. Design also has a long history in China. Apparently, at the ancient times, design was done mainly by trial and error largely dependent on personal experience and wisdom.
Design has evolved gradually in China with the industrialization progress. In the period of 1840–1949, development of the premodern industry in China, marked by using machines and mechanical power, experienced a tortuous growth. Since 1840, the western countries set up factories in China which marked the beginning of China’s premodern industry dominated by ship building and repairing industry, and the processing industry for silk and tea export. Since 1861, the state of Qing dynasty started the military industries of machinery production. Since 1870, Chinese civil industries arose, featured by government-supervised businesses mostly related to the cotton textile industry. From 1895 to 1919, Chinese premodern national industry, mainly light industry, stepped into its initial development period in which business enterprises and national capital dominated. After the 1930s, Chinese premodern national industry almost remained stagnant.
In the period of 1949–1966, the premodern industries were transformed into state-owned enterprises and the industries in the People’s Republic of China experienced a rapid development. However, this development almost came to a standstill in the following 10 yr due to the so-called “cultural revolution”. After 1976, China launched the reform and the “open-door policy” in order to cooperate with all countries in the world. Initially, the cheap labor and resources attracted a large number of overseas enterprises to set up factories in China. Through successful joint-venture operations, China’s manufacturing capability was greatly upgraded. Meanwhile, the low-end product design capability was also improved. Nevertheless, the high-end product development relied heavily on intellectual property and design technologies from the developed countries and there were few high-end products invented and developed by local enterprises. A main reason was that these enterprises had no support from modern product design theory, methods, and techniques. In the past 10 yr, China vigorously promoted enterprise independent development ability by emphasizing the enterprise’s own intellectual property rights of products. The state put forward the strategic goal to make China an innovation-oriented country, and therefore, design and innovation are advocated and emphasized greatly nowadays in China. With a sustained progress of more than 30 yr, the industries in China are now in their golden period of development which has also resulted in a fast development of design-related education and research.
In the academic world, during 1895 and 1896, the two oldest modern universities in China were founded in Tianjin and Shanghai respectively. Peiyang University established its engineering branch and machinery branch, while Nanyang College started its mechanical engineering branch. Since then, the education and research in mechanical engineering and design progressed gradually in China. By 2012, there are a total of 2138 regular institutions of higher education in China, including 841 common colleges and universities and 1297 full-time higher vocational colleges. The college students are about 17 million as of 2012. In order to strengthen the depth of engineering application-oriented research, degree courses set up in recent years for Master and Doctoral degrees have emphasized the combination of theory research and engineering practice.
Mechanical design is a key activity in manufacturing enterprises. The aim of an enterprise in developing new products is to make profit through product sales, which assures continued growth of an enterprise. Therefore, the starting point of an enterprise product development procedure is market demand analysis and hereafter the product development planning. The product development process can be divided into two stages: design and manufacturing. The mechanical design process generally includes four stages such as task definition, conceptual design, detailed design, and design refinement.
In our view, the core competence of modern product design is the systematic approaches to obtaining the optimal solutions to mechanism design, structure design, actuation design, etc. Product innovation is embodied in the invention and design of mechanism topology or mechanism type. Mechanism design is a core content of R&D of modern complex equipment that reflects mankind’s wisdom and inspiration. The challenge in mechanism design is originated in the diversity of product design targets, uncertainty in the relation between the product type and its performance, non-numerical and qualitative characteristics in type synthesis, close-coupling and quantitative characteristics in dimensional synthesis, and comparable global indicators needed for product performance evaluation. For example, the mechanism design in heavy-duty equipment requires more attention to the following questions: (1) What is the working principle of heavy-duty equipment? That means what type of action series and force/moment series should be performed by the mechanism; (2) How to evaluate the mechanism performance such as isotropy or anisotropy? (3) What’s the relationship between the configuration/size and the equipment performance? (4) How should we determine the weights in multiobjective optimization, and the situation when the solution tends to be a local optimum? (5) How should we reduce the coupling degree of multiple actuations to facilitate the control of heavy-duty equipment? and (6) How can we avoid the mechanical interference and overconstraint in heavy-duty actuation system when several actuators drive one input axis using synchronization only through control?
Today software and technology for computer-aided design have advanced with numerous commercial design softwares available in the market, such as 3D modeling and rendering of machine structure, finite element analysis, kinematic simulation and analysis, as well as dynamic simulation and analysis. Nevertheless, no commercial software is available for mechanism synthesis, which is beyond mechanism analysis. In particular, mechanism type and dimension design software are lacking due to the shortage of theoretical research foundations. In the past 30 yr, Chinese scholars have made unique achievements in mechanism type and dimension design and published a large number of papers in national and international journals and conferences. These works are expected to lay a foundation and further advance the computer-aided design technology in the world. Meanwhile, Chinese scholars have worked on a wide range of topics in modern design research including design theory and methodology, optimization-based design automation techniques such as design under uncertainty, and design methods for life-cycle engineering.
Through more than 60 yr of hard work, China established a relatively complete industrial system, but the “new” and “old” coexist and there is a lack of core technologies and independent innovations, thus resulting in products with low add-on values. With the ever-growing global competition, it becomes urgent that the Chinese enterprises pursue independent R&D that foster design innovation. Large enterprises have set up their R&D centers to enhance product innovation and competition capabilities. More enterprises utilize external resources like universities to enhance their own innovation capabilities. In addition to the traditional problem solving-oriented collaboration mode, some new institution-enterprise cooperation modes started to emerge. These new modes include named posts in the universities established by enterprises to encourage university faculty members to carry out basic research work, joint research institutes between enterprises and universities, university research labs located in enterprises, and enterprise research labs located in universities. All of these strengthen the institution-enterprise cooperation and promote enterprise’s innovation capability from a more fundamental level. Universities are becoming one of the most important sources of enterprise product innovations. This will be an important feature of Chinese enterprises’ development in a relatively long period of time to come in the future.
The education and research community of mechanical design in Chinese universities has grown significantly, to the current size of 10,000 faculty members. Years ago, Chinese universities barely had any collaboration with enterprises, and universities’ education and research had little relevance to enterprises’ demands, which implies that universities did not serve the society effectively. To address this shortcoming, Chinese universities are given more opportunities, like the aforementioned, to get involved in the enterprise product development process and are playing a more important role through both theoretical and applied research of product development. Examples of innovative high-end equipment designed through industry–university collaborations include forging manipulators used for large forging precision production, servo presses used in automotive sheet metal forming, and huge mine excavator designed based on the study of basic design theory and methods.
Survival and new developments are common topics faced by humanity. Energy, environment, climate change, and other major problems that restrict the sustainable development of human society have become common challenges facing the global world, and they can be addressed through energy saving and emission reduction activities as well as new energy applications. We need to think about how mechanical engineering and design can play a bigger role in responding to these challenges. It is our view that mechanical design can play a crucial role in providing new principles of equipment design and new strategies of achieving high performance and low energy consumption in various energy applications, such as in transforming traditional industries and equipment to low energy consumption while protecting the environment; in the invention of green manufacturing equipment of low energy consumption; in the R&D of industrial robots and special-mission robots for nuclear power plant disaster rescue, oilfield blowout rescue, and natural disaster rescue; and in energy collection and transformation equipment for solar energy, wind energy, ocean energy, and other renewable energies.
China is trying her best to progressively implement the historic change from a big manufacturing country to one that is competent all-round. An important symbol of a leading manufacturing country is the ability to pursue independent research and development with its own independent intellectual property, and to provide more original and creative ideas to the world. Obviously the research of design theory and method plays an important role here. Our Chinese colleagues will continue to work on more extensive theoretical and applied research in engineering design and contribute to the world through more publications in the Journal of Mechanical Design.