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What is Systems Engineering?

The meaning of the engineering of systems has become muddled as more “systems” emerge.

By John Blyler, Affiliate Professor at PSU

If you ask most people today to define what is meant by systems engineering, they’d give you a definition that pertains to either the software or Information Technology (IT) worlds. While both domains have adopted the basic tenants of systems engineering, they are really subsystems of a much larger system.

How does one define the big “S” type of Systems Engineering that includes all engineering domains and disciplines? Let’s start by compiling a list of suitable examples:

1. I’m glad to see my colleague Robert Rassa is still heavily involved in systems engineering, both as Director of Engineering Programs for Raytheon SAS and past president of the IEEE Systems Council. Here’s a few of his insights from and IEEE USA article:

bob_rassa_photoSystems engineering is an interdisciplinary engineering field that looks at complex systems—think of airplanes as a classic example—through the lens of the entire product life cycle. The systems engineering process begins with establishing a customer’s needs and defining the problems that need to be overcome. It then moves to investigating alternatives, modeling the system, integrating various components (often made by multiple teams or suppliers), and launching the system. But the launch is not the end of the job: the systems engineer must then assess the performance of the product or system and re-evaluate to make sure the system will continue to operate properly.

With that in mind, what makes a good systems engineer? “First of all,” says Rassa, “you need to have a broad engineering background.” He recommends having both discipline experience—electrical engineering, software engineering, etc.—as well as domain experience—space, transportation, communications and the like. “Second, you need to understand a lot of the basics—mechanical engineering, software, logistics, reliability—and have an understanding of how those things play into design.”

2. Here’s early recognition of the need for systems engineering in the creation of mission critical code for the Apollo moon mission. In this quote, Margaret Hamilton responds to the suggestion that she coined the term “software engineering” while coding for the moon mission:

M_Hamilton_codingSoftware during the early days of this project was treated like a stepchild and not taken as seriously as other engineering disciplines, such as hardware engineering; and it was regarded as an art and as magic, not a science. I had always believed that both art and science were involved in its creation, but at that time most thought otherwise. Knowing this, I fought to bring the software legitimacy so that it (and those building it) would be given its due respect and thus I began to use the term “software engineering” to distinguish it from hardware and other kinds of engineering; yet, treat each type of engineering as part of the overall systems engineering process. When I first started using this phrase, it was considered to be quite amusing. It was an ongoing joke for a long time. They liked to kid me about my radical ideas. Software eventually and necessarily gained the same respect as any other discipline.

3. “A surprising number of disciplines are needed to create complex chips, from electronic, mechanical, chemical, to software, applied physics and system engineers,” says John E. Blyler, editorial director of Extensionsmedia. “These disciplines must work together to meet time-to-market, cost and quality demands in vertical spaces like consumer, communication, automotive, medical, space — any area that relies on semiconductor and embedded electronics.” – IEEE USA interview

4. I had difficulty finding a good definition of systems engineering as applied to the world of semiconductor technology. As a place marker, I’ve added this definition of an SoC.

“A system on a chip or system on chip (SoC or SOC) is an integrated circuit (IC) that integrates all components of a computer or other electronic system into a single chip. It may contain digital, analog, mixed-signal, and oftenradio-frequency functions—all on a single chip substrate. SoCs are very common in the mobile electronics market because of their low power consumption. A typical application is in the area of embedded systems.” – Wikipedia

Do you have a preferred definition of a System? Please send it to me. I’ll add it to this list. Cheers — John


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