Ming-Ho's Blog

Fourth-Year Design Project, Part 1: Introduction, Definition, Applications

October 10, 2013

“Our fourth-year design project is to optimize the guided improvement algorithm, which is used to solve exact, discrete, multi-objective optimization problems.”

When friends ask about our group’s fourth-year design project (FYDP)1, that’s the most specific and succinct answer I can give. If I want to provide a more helpful answer, I can either make it shorter but more vague (“We’re optimizing an algorithm”), or more detailed but much longer.

That second option is what I’d like to do here, in a series of blog posts. I plan to write about the following topics:

I don’t anticipate the list changing too much, even though I’m still in the process of writing and editing the other parts. The only topic I am unsure about is results; at the time of writing (October 2013), our group is still working on the project. We have some preliminary results, but will likely not have anything rigorous until our design symposium, which will be held around March 2014.

I do not expect readers of this series to have any background in optimization, but I do expect some background in computer science. Readers from math, engineering, or science backgrounds should be able to follow most of this series. I will be referring to things such as discrete and continuous variables, SAT solvers, and multi-threading, but only a basic understanding of these topics is required. It is more important that a reader can follow the (informal) math definitions and examples.

The rest of this post will be about multi-objective optimization, specifically, a basic introduction plus a discussion of its applications. In future parts, I’ll give a more formal definition, walk through some examples, and describe three related algorithms for solving exact, discrete, multi-objective optimization problems.

What is multi-objective optimization?

Informally speaking, optimization is choosing the “best” (or optimal) option from some set of alternatives. What makes an option optimal is based on an objective (or metric), which we can minimize or maximize.

For instance, suppose we want to assemble a bicycle2 while minimizing the total cost. We have a selection of parts (such as the frame, brakes, tires, and so on) to choose from. However, we can’t haphazardly choose parts. Some parts might fit only with certain parts, so we need to consider constraints. Thus, we want to find a configuration (or solution) that satisfies the constraints and is also optimal.

Since our only objective is the bicycle’s cost, this is a single-objective optimization problem. In the real world, we would need to consider other criteria, such as maximizing performance. Now we have a multi-objective (or many-objective) optimization problem with two criteria3.

With multiple objectives, defining the “best” solution becomes more complicated when objectives conflict with each other. It will be often impossible to assemble a bicycle that is both cheap and has excellent performance, so we’ll have to accept trade-offs and allow multiple solutions. We could choose one of the extremes (a cheap bicycle with poor performance or an expensive bicycle with high performance), or something in between. In the next part, I’ll provide a more formal definition for how we can do this.

To briefly summarize, optimization is choosing some option that satisfies the problem constraints and is optimal with respect to a single objective. With multi-objective optimization, we usually have to make trade-offs between different objectives when choosing an optimal solution.

What is exact, discrete, multi-objective optimization?

Our project is concerned with exact, discrete, multi-objective optimization, which is a specific type of multi-objective optimization.

Discrete multi-objective optimization means we are working with discrete (or combinatorial) variables, as opposed to continuous variables. In discrete optimization, we are restricted to certain values or configurations. For example, suppose we have to choose between aluminum, steel, titanium, or carbon fibre for our bicycle frame. We cannot mix the materials and choose arbitrary percentages.

“Exact” refers to exact solutions, as opposed to approximate ones. A popular approach for solving multi-objective optimization problems is to use genetic algorithms. However, genetic algorithms find approximate solutions and cannot guarantee that they are exact4.

Much of the related work within this field seems to be concerned with continuous variables, or finding approximate solutions to discrete multi-objective optimization problems. In contrast, our group is interested algorithms that find exact solutions to multi-objective optimization problems with discrete variables.

From this point on, I will refer to “exact, discrete, multi-objective optimization” simply as “multi-objective optimization.”

What are some applications of multi-objective optimization?

In this section, I’ll discuss three applications of multi-objective optimization, taken from real engineering problems. Our group is using these problems as case studies for our performance evaluations. We also have toy problems, but it’s more important to see how our improvements can help solve real problems.

The first problem, from aerospace engineering, is based on the decisions made while planning the Apollo program5. Some of these decisions included the number of crew members, the type of Earth and lunar orbits, and the fuel type. In this model, the objectives are to minimize weight and risk.

The second problem, also from aerospace engineering, is a ten-year satellite launch schedule formulated by NASA, called the decadal survey6. The decisions in this problem include choosing which satellites to launch and in which order, while the constraints include deadlines for specific satellites and restrictions on the launch order. The objectives are to maximize value for each of the six participating scientific communities, as a delayed launch can reduce value.

The final problem, from software engineering, is actually a collection of (software) product line problems. The general idea is that when choosing features for a particular product, there are also different objectives and constraints to include in the decisions. For example, one of our problems involves designing a search and rescue system 7. Decisions include the type of connectivity and location finding, whether maps should be preloaded or downloaded on demand, and the format for data exchange. Objectives include minimizing cost, development time, battery usage and maximizing reliability.

Our group has a few other case studies, most of which are software product line problems. We have also looked at a few civil engineering problems, but we currently do not have models for our evaluations.

Hopefully, this section has provided some motivation for why multi-objective optimization is significant and how it can be used in the real world.


In this first part, I introduced and provided an overview of my planned blog series, which is to explain our group’s fourth year design project. Specifically, I want to elaborate on the opening quote: “Our fourth year design project is to optimize the guided improvement algorithm, which is used to solve exact, discrete, multi-objective optimization problems.”

I also introduced exact, discrete, multi-objective optimization, defining the terms separately. To quickly summarize, our group is interested in algorithms that can find exact solutions to discrete optimization problems with multiple objectives.

Finally, I provided three real world applications of multi-objective optimization: the Apollo program, the decadal survey, and software product lines.

In the next part, I’ll provide a more formal definition of multi-objective optimization, which should clarify some of the concepts introduced today. I’ll also step through a more concrete (though also more contrived) example, and that should conclude my explanation of multi-objective optimization.

I would like to thank Chris Kleynhans and Zameer Manji for proofreading this post.


  1. ^ The fourth-year design project, part of the software engineering curriculum at the University of Waterloo, is a three-course sequence. (Other engineering programs at Waterloo have similar courses.) Students work in groups of four team members, over the course of 20 months, on a non-trivial engineering project involving software development.

  2. ^ I’m not an expert on bicycles, but this was the example given when I first learned about multi-objective optimization, so it’s stuck in my mind.

  3. ^ Nothing restricts us to only two objectives, other than trying to keep the example simple. Sometimes, “multi-objective” is used to to differentiate between “one objective” and “two or three objectives,” but our group uses it to mean “any number of objectives.” Many-objective is often used to mean the latter.

  4. ^ This will become clearer in the next post, with a more formal definition of “optimal.”

  5. ^ If you’re interested, chapter 4 of this PhD thesis discusses the Apollo problem in greater detail.

  6. ^ The decadal survey runs once every ten years. The first one completed in 2007.

  7. ^ The search and rescue problem is adapated from this technical report.

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