The Flexible Meaning of Function in Engineering

Year: 2009
Editor: Norell Bergendahl, M.; Grimheden, M.; Leifer, L.; Skogstad, P.; Lindemann, U.
Author: Vermaas, Pieter E.
Section: Design Theory and Research Methodology
Page(s): 113-124


In this paper I explain the co-existence of different approaches towards understanding functions. First I argue that full descriptions of technical devices contain five key concepts: structure, behavior, function, action, and goal. Then I show that such full descriptions can be simplified. Physicochemical descriptions of devices that link structure, behavior, and functions, are cloaking references to actions and goals. Intentional descriptions that link goals, actions, and functions, cloak behavior and structure. Descriptions that directly link goals of users to the structure of devices, by-pass references to actions and/or behavior. Third I argue that these simplifications affect the meaning of the concept of function. Functions may refer to desired behavior of devices, to desired effects, or to goals of agents. Function thus has a flexible meaning in engineering that depends on the way full descriptions of devices are simplified. Finally I show with three examples that approaches towards understanding functions advance different simplifications. Hence, they co-exist because they represent simplifications of full descriptions of devices that are all valuable to engineering.

Keywords: function, goal, action, behavior, structure


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