In a previous post I claimed that, to do good research, you want to arrange experiments so there is no pre-hypothesis of how the results will turn out. As the post was long, I said nothing direct on how such experiments should be organized, but only alluded to my preference: experiments should be organized at randomly chosen conditions within the area of interest. The alternative, shown below is that experiments should be done at the cardinal points in the space, or at corner extremes: the Wilson Box and Taguchi design of experiments (DoE), respectively. Doing experiments at these points implies a sort of expectation of the outcome; generally that results will be linearly, orthogonal related to causes; in such cases, the extreme values are the most telling. Sorry to say, this usually isn’t how experimental data will fall out.
The first test-points for experiments according to the Wilson Box method and Taguchi method of experimental designs are shown on the left and center of the figure above, along with a randomly chosen set of experimental conditions on the right. Taguchi experiments are the most popular choice nowadays, especially in Japan, but as Taguchi himself points out, this approach works best if there are “few interactions between variables, and if only a few variables contribute significantly.” Wilson Box experimental choices help if there is a parabolic effect from at least one parameter, but are fairly unsuited to cases with strong cross-interactions.
Perhaps the main problems with doing experiments at extreme or cardinal points is that these experiments are usually harder than at random points, and that the results from these difficult tests generally tell you nothing you didn’t know or suspect from the start. The minimum concentration is usually zero, and the minimum temperature is usually one where reactions are too slow to matter. When you test at the minimum-minimum point, you expect to find nothing, and generally that’s what you find. In the data sets shown above, it will not be uncommon that the two minimum W-B data points, and the 3 minimum Taguchi data points, will show no measurable result at all.
Randomly selected experimental conditions are the experimental equivalent of Monte Carlo simulation, and is the method evolution uses. Set out the space of possible compositions, morphologies and test conditions as with the other method, and perhaps plot them on graph paper. Now, toss darts at the paper to pick a few compositions and sets of conditions to test; and do a few experiments. Because nature is rarely linear, you are likely to find better results and more interesting phenomena than at any of those at the extremes. After the first few experiments, when you think you understand how things work, you can pick experimental points that target an optimum extreme point, or that visit a more-interesting or representative survey of the possibilities. In any case, you’ll quickly get a sense of how things work, and how successful the experimental program will be. If nothing works at all, you may want to cancel the program early, if things work really well you’ll want to expand it. With random experimental points you do fewer worthless experiments, and you can easily increase or decrease the number of experiments in the program as funding and time allows.
Consider the simple case of choosing a composition for gunpowder. The composition itself involves only 3 or 4 components, but there is also morphology to consider including the gross structure and fine structure (degree of grinding). Instead of picking experiments at the maximum compositions: 100% salt-peter, 0% salt-peter, grinding to sub-micron size, etc., as with Taguchi, a random methodology is to pick random, easily do-able conditions: 20% S and 40% salt-peter, say. These compositions will be easier to ignite, and the results are likely to be more relevant to the project goals.
The advantages of random testing get bigger the more variables and levels you need to test. Testing 9 variables at 3 levels each takes 27 Taguchi points, but only 16 or so if the experimental points are randomly chosen. To test if the behavior is linear, you can use the results from your first 7 or 8 randomly chosen experiments, derive the vector that gives the steepest improvement in n-dimensional space (a weighted sum of all the improvement vectors), and then do another experimental point that’s as far along in the direction of that vector as you think reasonable. If your result at this point is better than at any point you’ve visited, you’re well on your way to determining the conditions of optimal operation. That’s a lot faster than by starting with 27 hard-to-do experiments. What’s more, if you don’t find an optimum; congratulate yourself, you’ve just discovered an non-linear behavior; something that would be easy to overlook with Taguchi or Wilson Box methodologies.
The basic idea is one Sherlock Holmes pointed out (Study in Scarlet): “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” (Case of Identity). “Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.“
Robert E. Buxbaum, September 11, 2013. A nice description of the Wilson Box method is presented in Perry’s Handbook (6th ed). SInce I had trouble finding a free, on-line description, I linked to a paper by someone using it to test ingredient choices in baked bread. Here’s a link for more info about random experimental choice, from the University of Michigan, Chemical Engineering dept. Here’s a joke on the misuse of statistics, and a link regarding the Taguchi Methodology. Finally, here’s a pointless joke on irrational numbers, that I posted for pi-day.