Mathematical Modeling of Engineering Problems and Problem Solving Technique

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An engineering device or process can be studied either experimentally (testing and taking measurements) or analytically (by analysis or calculations). The experimental approach has the advantage that we deal with the actual physical system, and the desired quantity is determined by measurement, within the limits of experimental error. However, this approach is expensive, time consuming, and often impractical. Besides, the system we are analyzing may not even exist. For example, the entire heating and plumbing systems of a building must usually be sized before the building is actually built on the basis of the specifications given. The analytical approach (including the numerical approach) has the advantage that it is fast and inexpensive, but the results obtained are subject to the accuracy of the assumptions, approximations, and idealizations made in the analysis. In engineering studies, often a good compromise is reached by reducing the choices to just a few by analysis, and then verifying the findings experimentally.

Modeling in Engineering

The descriptions of most scientific problems involve equations that relate the changes in some key variables to each other. Usually the smaller the increment chosen in the changing variables, the more general and accurate the description. In the limiting case of infinitesimal or differential changes in variables, we obtain differential equations that provide precise mathematical formulations for the physical principles and laws by representing the rates of change as derivatives. Therefore, differential equations are used to investigate a wide variety of problems in sciences and engineering (Fig. l–16). However, many problems encountered in practice can be solved without resorting to differential equations and the complications associated with them.

Mathematical Modeling of Engineering Problems and Problem Solving Technique

The study of physical phenomena involves two important steps.

In the first step, all the variables that affect the phenomena are identified, reasonable assumptions and approximations are made, and the interdependence of these variables is studied. The relevant physical laws and principles are invoked, and the problem is formulated mathematically. The equation itself is very instructive as it shows the degree of dependence of some variables on others, and the relative importance of various terms.

In the second step, the problem is solved using an appropriate approach, and the results are interpreted.

Many processes that seem to occur in nature randomly and without any order are, in fact, being governed by some visible or not-so-visible physical laws. Whether we notice them or not, these laws are there, governing consistently and predictably what seem to be ordinary events.

Preparing very accurate but complex models is usually not so difficult. But such models are not much use to an analyst if they are very difficult and time consuming to solve. At the minimum, the model should reflect the essential features of the physical problem it represents. There are many significant real world problems that can be analyzed with a simple model. But it should always be kept in mind that the results obtained from an analysis are at best as accurate as the assumptions made in simplifying the problem. Therefore, the solution obtained should not be applied to situations for which the original assumptions do not hold.

A solution that is not quite consistent with the observed nature of the problem indicates that the mathematical model used is too crude. In that case, a more realistic model should be prepared by eliminating one or more of the
questionable assumptions. This will result in a more complex problem that, of course, is more difficult to solve. Thus any solution to a problem should be interpreted within the context of its formulation.

Problem Solving Technique

The first step in learning any science is to grasp the fundamentals, and to gain a sound knowledge of it. The next step is to master the fundamentals by putting this knowledge to test. This is done by solving significant real-world
problems. Solving such problems, especially complicated ones, require a systematic approach. By using a step-by-step approach, an engineer can reduce the solution of a complicated problem into the solution of a series of simple problems (Fig. 1–17). When solving a problem, we recommend that you use the following steps zealously as applicable. This will help you avoid some of the common pitfalls associated with problem solving.

Mathematical Modeling of Engineering Problems and Problem Solving Technique

Step 1: Problem Statement

In your own words, briefly state the problem, the key information given, and the quantities to be found. This is to make sure that you understand the problem and the objectives before you attempt to solve the problem.

Step 2: Schematic

Draw a realistic sketch of the physical system involved, and list the relevant information on the figure. The sketch does not have to be something elaborate, but it should resemble the actual system and show the key features. Indicate any energy and mass interactions with the surroundings. Listing the given information on the sketch helps one to see the entire problem at once. Also, check for properties that remain constant during a process (such as temperature during an isothermal process), and indicate them on the sketch.

Step 3: Assumptions and Approximations

State any appropriate assumptions and approximations made to simplify the problem to make it possible to obtain a solution. Justify the questionable assumptions. Assume reasonable values for missing quantities that are necessary. For example, in the absence of specific data for atmospheric pressure, it can be taken to be 1 atm. However, it should be noted in the analysis that the atmospheric pressure decreases with increasing elevation. For example, it drops to 0.83 atm in Denver (elevation 1610 m).


Mathematical Modeling of Engineering Problems and Problem Solving Technique


Step 4: Physical Laws

Apply all the relevant basic physical laws and principles (such as the conservation of mass), and reduce them to their simplest form by utilizing the assumptions made. However, the region to which a physical law is applied must be clearly identified first. For example, the heating or cooling of a canned drink is usually analyzed by applying the conservation of energy principle to the entire can.

Step 5: Properties

Determine the unknown properties at known states necessary to solve the problem from property relations or tables. List the properties separately, and indicate their source, if applicable.

Step 6: Calculations

Substitute the known quantities into the simplified relations and perform the calculations to determine the unknowns. Pay particular attention to the units and unit cancellations, and remember that a dimensional quantity without a unit is meaningless. Also, don’t give a false implication of high precision by copying all the digits from the screen of the calculator—round the results to an appropriate number of significant digits.

Step 7: Reasoning, Verification, and Discussion

Check to make sure that the results obtained are reasonable and intuitive, and verify the validity of the questionable assumptions. Repeat the calculations that resulted in unreasonable values. For example, insulating a water heater that uses $80 worth of natural gas a year cannot result in savings of $200 a year.


Mathematical Modeling of Engineering Problems and Problem Solving Technique


Also, point out the significance of the results, and discuss their implications. State the conclusions that can be drawn from the results, and any recommendations that can be made from them. Emphasize the limitations under which the results are applicable, and caution against any possible misunderstandings and using the results in situations where the underlying assumptions do not apply. For example, if you determined that wrapping a water heater with a $20 insulation jacket will reduce the energy cost by $30 a year, indicate that the insulation will pay for itself from the energy it saves in less than a year. However, also indicate that the analysis does not consider labor costs, and that this will be the case if you install the insulation yourself.


Keep in mind that you present the solutions to your instructors, and any engineering analysis presented to others, is a form of communication. Therefore neatness, organization, completeness, and visual appearance are of utmost importance for maximum effectiveness. Besides, neatness also serves as a great checking tool since it is very easy to spot errors and inconsistencies in a neat work. Carelessness and skipping steps to save time often ends up costing more time and unnecessary anxiety.



Fundamentals of Thermal-Fluid Sciences by Yunus A. Çengel and Robert H. Turner.

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